The Society of Professional Journalists presented its Sunshine Award to a collaborative investigation by the Arizona Republic and USA TODAY into how special interest groups are drafting copycat legislation in state houses across the country.
Both newsrooms and the Center for Public Integrity were honored for their work on “Copy. To stick on. Legislate”.
The Sunshine Prize recognizes individuals and groups for their significant contributions to the field of open government.
The justices said the work represented the first attempt to unearth and number the bills being debated in state houses across the country that are largely copied from those pushed by special interests – and throw massive amounts of light solar on a decidedly dark process.
The news outlets also won the 2020 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism, one of journalism’s most prestigious accolades.
The project began with two parallel, but separate, investigations into the phenomenon known as model legislation. When legislators propose new laws, they don’t always write the bills themselves. Companies, interest groups, and lobbyists often write papers to fill out and then submit them to state legislators.
How copied invoices become your laws
How special interests use copies of bills to peddle laws in your state houses.
Patrick Shannahan, USA TODAY
One of the efforts, spearheaded by reporters and editors from the Arizona Republic and USA TODAY, has been to identify how successful the groups have been in getting this legislation passed in state homes. One team obtained model bills from special interest groups and measured how often the language of those models found its way into real bills and laws across the country. They found them in all 50 states, with over 10,000 copies in all.
The second approach, pioneered by reporters from the Center for Public Integrity, was to analyze the legislation itself to organically identify suspicious copies of bills. The two newsrooms have joined forces to increase the impact of the survey and reach a wider audience.
As part of the national review, reporters identified laws that had been copied from vested interests, including laws limiting lawsuits by asbestos victims, expanding so-called restrictions on abortion by heartbeat and helping car dealerships escape the consequences of fatal defects.
The teams also identified and interviewed lawmakers who have most often sponsored special interest legislation. People in various states have called for legislation requiring more transparency about the origin of the bill’s wording.
Republic investigative editor Michael Squires helped lead the effort for more than two years. Republic data investigative reporter Rob O’Dell and USA TODAY’s Nick Penzenstadler wrote the lead story; a team of dozens of journalists, editors, data analysts, graphic designers and others across the country contributed to the project.
The other two Sunshine Awards for 2020 were given to R. Jeffrey Smith and the Center for Public Integrity, for an investigation into President Donald Trump’s decision to halt aid to Ukraine, and Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News , for an investigation into secret FDA deals that kept reports of medical device malfunctions and injuries hidden from public scrutiny.
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