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A new study finds that cut-and-paste bills aren’t as effective as measures tailored to individual states.
Copying existing laws from other states might make life easier for state legislators, but the practice could hamper progress toward the new law’s goals, according to a new study.
“Adopting a copied policy is better than not adopting any policy,” said Joshua Jansa, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University and one of the authors of the study, which was published in the academic journal Policy & Politics. “But if you plagiarize a policy, if you fail to customize it for your state, you’re going to see less success than if you actually wrote a customized [law].”
The results from Jansa’s study with co-author Robert Dorrell Jr. could have widespread implications. State legislators frequently borrow ideas from colleagues in other capitols. In some cases, it’s part of an effort to roll out de facto national policies through model legislation. Other times, interest groups push for similar changes around the country. And sometimes, lawmakers just want to replicate the successes of policies elsewhere.
But there is a price for taking shortcuts, Jansa’s study suggests.
To gauge the impact of using borrowed ideas, Jansa looked at three policies that have been universally adopted (or nearly so) by states in recent years: efforts to reduce bullying among kids, bans on youth from vaping and a model law to encourage residents to sign up to become organ donors.
He used existing political science methods to determine how much of every state’s law was original and how much was lifted from other states. To see how effective the vaping and anti-bullying laws were, he drew from surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jansa looked at organ donor registration data gathered by Donate Life America, an interest group.
“We find about a 12% reduction in success,” Jansa said. “Again, having the policy means you’re getting most of the way there, but there is a downside. There is risk in seeing less success the more you copy.”
“Any reduction in success means an impact on somebody’s life – another kid getting bullied, another kid taking up vaping or another person who needs an organ not having one because there are fewer registrants,” he added.
The results could influence an ongoing debate among political scientists and the general public about the merits of copy-and-paste legislating.
The issue drew widespread attention in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, when activists targeted companies that supported the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential group of conservative lawmakers and corporate members. ALEC promoted “stand your ground” laws in several states like the one that made it difficult to prosecute Martin’s killer in Florida.
A 2019 investigation by USA Today, the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity brought more scrutiny to ALEC and copycat bills. The journalists found 10,000 bills around the country had been copied wholesale from model legislation over eight years, and 2,100 of those became law. (An ALEC spokesperson did not return a request for comment.)
Critics of the practice said lawmakers who relied on borrowed text overlook problems – like conflicts with existing laws – that could arise in their own states. They also argue that the practice gives disproportionate influence to wealthy and powerful interest groups, many of them from out of state.
But proponents of the idea say transferring policies from one state to the next is efficient, especially for time-strapped officials. Indeed, other researchers have found that lawmakers in states with less professional legislatures are more likely to crib bill language from other states. Plus, legislators often hope that they can benefit from having uniform policies – or at least similar ones – across state lines.
The study doesn’t explain why copied bills have less of an impact, but Jansa suggested that the back-and-forth of negotiating a new law can bring longer-term benefits.
“By copying and pasting, you’re shortcutting the political process, which is meant to bring in stakeholders, get different points of view, foresee implementation problems, customize language, and then adopt and implement with success,” he said.
Without that process, Jansa said, there are some “missing pieces that are going to make implementation from the bureaucracy clunkier. There’s going to be some language that doesn’t quite fit the needs of the states. There’s going to be less buy-in and so less desire to make something work.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.