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Week 5: The Build-A-Bill Workshop

Ivana Martinez

Every year, hundreds of bills are filed for Utah lawmakers to consider during the legislative session. But, not all those bills were written by Utah lawmakers or their staff. Some of them weren’t even written in Utah. In fact, if you look at all the bills under consideration in state legislatures across the country, you might start to get a bit of legislative déjà vu .

This week, hosts Sonja Hutson and Emily Means talk about “model legislation” — bills that lawmakers can pluck off shelves of the metaphorical “legislative shop” and try to get passed their own state. They’ll dig into how the process works, who’s behind these bills and why lawmakers use them.


Leah Murray, political scientist and Academic Director at the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University

Interview Highlights:

Interview highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

On how organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) work to get bills into state legislatures:

Alec is one example of a national interest group that figured out early that the ability to affect policy is much less controlled and monitored, if you will, at the state level. And so what they do is they host these annual events and invite legislators to come, and then in between the annual events that they are having, they create task forces around particular issues of interest. It's a group of like-minded individuals who are interested in legislation.

So here's the thing — Utah has what we call a citizen legislature, and what that means is Utah has 45 days to do all the things, which is not a lot of time. And Utah doesn't have a lot of resources for staff. So, what happens with a group like ALEC and these model bills is it makes your life a little easier. [Lawmakers] are able to say ‘Here's a piece of legislation. It addresses an issue I know my intern said a constituent called about. It's written really well.’ And then they file that bill.

On why these groups focus on state Legislatures instead of federal policy:

Imagine Congress is the World Series, right? So it's Major League Baseball. The states might be farm teams, but it's still baseball, so they can still have an effect. And if [these organizations] can get the states to do it where they have interests or operating interests, then it may be even better than a national policy. Because, quite frankly, what's interesting about it is most people have never heard of [ALEC]. So, think about your interest groups who operate at a national level. They become like boogeymen — the NRA or the ACLU. They become the names that people are up in the night thinking about. No one’s really up in the night thinking about ALEC.

On why model bills are more popular among Republicans than Democrats:

I think it's somewhat complicated. So in the way that I have mentioned, Congress is kind of the major leagues, right? And states are the farm teams to a certain extent. Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has been much more interested in the farm team. They invest quite a bit in state Legislatures — they invest in candidates, they invest in getting people elected who they think are going to tout the party line.

Democrats were much more interested at the national level over the last few decades. So to a certain extent, there wouldn't be a reason for a national interest group to align so clearly with Democratic interests. The Democrats are going to be [working] more on the national level.

However, things are changing and Democrats are beginning to move in that direction. I would argue Georgia is an example of this, where you've got Stacey Abrams going ‘we could be blue’ and then doing it. Whereas national Democrats would have been like ‘we would never invest in Georgia.’ So it's possible in the next decade or so we'll start to see [model legislation] on the left. I just don't think we see it yet.

Stories Referenced:

Bills Referenced:

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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