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2019 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Copy, Paste, Legislate

About the Project

It wasn’t that long ago that state lawmakers and their legislative staff members wrote their own words when they proposed a law.

That practice has all but disappeared.

In its place, corporations and powerful special interests have seized control of the language that governs America. Using model legislation, the powerful few inject their hand-crafted bills into the legislative process, choosing the very words that get debated, and often, get written into law.

Once introduced, the language in the bills can go viral, spreading from state to state, executing an agenda to the letter. Even lawmakers voting on the bills say they are often unaware of who wrote them – or why.

USA TODAY, the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity dedicated more than two years to a massive data collection and analysis effort that is shining new light on the use and scope of model legislation.

Programmers and data reporters at the news organizations used computer algorithms to uncover common language in nearly 1 million bills introduced in all 50 states. The comparisons required the equivalent of 150 computers to run non-stop for several months.

CPI and USA TODAY/Arizona Republic built two analysis tools to identify model language, using two different approaches. USA TODAY’s efforts found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model language that were introduced in legislatures nationwide over the last eight years. CPI’s tool worked to identify common language in approximately 60,000 bills nationwide to flag previously unknown model legislation. Together the tools allowed for analysis of success from identified model bills and enabled identification of new model legislation.

The computer comparisons, along with on-the-ground reporting in more than a dozen states, revealed that copycat legislation amounts to the nation’s largest, unreported special interest campaign. Model bills drive the agenda in states across the U.S. and influence almost every area of public policy.

Our reporting continues. As part of the project, we built a live tool that allows reporters in Gannett’s local newsrooms to examine the model bills we uncovered in each state. So far, we have trained more than 100 reporters on the tool, which they can use to identify model bills or the elected officials in their states who have sponsored the most copycat bills. They can receive alerts when a new model bill in their state is found.

The analysis tools have provided information for more than a dozen follow-up stories, most in local newsrooms. Our stories have explored model legislation sought by Big Tobacco, as well as bills that barred same-sex couple from adopting or prevented government contractors from protesting Israeli policies.