Cut-and-paste is no way to ‘write’ new laws

/ 28 April 2012 / jennifer

Paul John Scott, Rochester Post-Bulletin Opinion, April 28, 2012 –

This fall, Minnesota voters will get to decide on a constitutional amendment that would require would-be voters to show a photo ID. You probably knew that already.

But there’s something you might not have known, and that is that the bill very likely did not originate in your Legislature.

More than 30 state legislatures, wildly differing bodies filled with disparate representatives and varying concerns, have tried to implement the same basic law in the three years since a prototype bill was handed down by a new Republican brain trust, a Washington-based special interest group known as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC for short. Like 60 other bills that have been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature in the past two years, major sections of the voter ID proposal are similar to one advocated by ALEC.

ALEC is a law-writing organization for obedient conservatives at the helm of state legislatures across the country, and if what it is doing does not trouble you, it certainly should.

It is funded almost exclusively through corporate donations and right-wing foundations. Its political membership is almost exclusively Republican. It’s only open to state legislators. You and I can’t join, but for $50 a year, your representative can log on the ALEC website and download laws written by big business, change a few words, then submit it for a vote as if he or she thought it up as they were elected to do — based upon the needs of their constituents.

The Voter ID bill has a special relationship to ALEC. Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, the supposed author of the amendment, is the chairwoman for ALEC in the Minnesota House. She has denied copying ALEC materials, but her bill shares basic provisions with the ALEC cheat sheet and it seems unlikely that her advocacy for the effort is not related to her regular attendance at ALEC’s national meetings held every summer (the last one was in New Orleans, and the one before that was in Cincinnati).

Sen. Majority Leader Dave Senjem has said he doesn’t know whether anyone in the Senate is a member of ALEC. He really should try Google. Common Cause has identified at least nine members of the Senate and 18 members of the House who have introduced laws authored by ALEC, including — wait for it — Sen. Senjem himself.

The senator is the sponsor of a bill (SF 0641) that has language identical to ALEC model legislation. It is a bill designed to increase spending on private schools through tax credits. He is also the sponsor — with Rep. Kim Norton, proving you don’t have to be a Republican to unwittingly do the bidding of big business — to SF 0843, an ALEC-copying bill that would create trust accounts for online learning. No potential for a corporate payday at taxpayer expense with that one.

Reps. Mike Parry and Steve Drazkowski are especially industrious placers of their names upon laws that Common Cause believes were originally downloaded from a website. Parry is sponsor of four ALEC-inspired laws. Drazkowski has his name on the sponsor line of five ALEC inspired bills. His so-called “tenther” bill, which would re-assert the questions we fought the Civil War to resolve, is nearly a verbatim use of ALEC legislation. Rep. Mike Benson has been identified as a member, too. I wish I could turn in other people’s writing and call it my own.

I realize that the voter ID bill seems like a no-brainer to a lot of people. You have to show an ID to buy beer, so what’s the harm of requiring one for voting?

But voting is nothing at all like buying beer. No injury is created by making it harder to buy beer, except perhaps to the good times at your next tailgating party. Voting, however — and high-turnout voting — is essential to democracy. Placing obstacles in the path of voter turnout is what they do to corrupt the process in places like Zimbabwe, and 215,000 Minnesotans of voting age lack government ID.

If there was a problem with voter fraud, the sponsors might have a case for voter ID, but the very idea is paranoid: sorry, but Democrats can barely organize a phone bank, let alone thousands of volunteers willing to risk felony charges in order to falsely show up at the polls in place of the dead, aged, infirm and indigent.

Did I mention that this proposal would cost the state millions of dollars?

Ironically, ALEC no longer even supports the voter ID bill. Corporations like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Kraft and Pepsi recently began pulling out of the group, and last week ALEC disbanded the committee that promoted voter ID laws.

In other words, you and I will be asked to vote on an amendment designed to please a bunch of corporations that don’t even care about it anymore, because they realized how bad it makes them look.

My problem with all of this is mostly unrelated to whether I have to show my license in order to vote. I just wonder why we tolerate legislators who are willing to put their names on laws written by big business. It seems lazy and dishonest and a corruption of representative government.

Maybe one of these legislators can write up a hearty defense of using ALEC model legislation, or being a member of ALEC. I hope so. I would find that very interesting.

Paul Scott is a Rochester-based freelance writer. His column appears periodically in the Post-Bulletin.