Loco Legislators

State and local officials are wasting your money-and their time-writing bad laws


While federal legislators have been busy concocting new ways to spend taxpayer dollars, local lawmakers have been stirring up some trouble of their own. As many state legislative sessions draw to a close, state senators and representatives are pushing a motley assortment of dangerous and ridiculous new laws.

Consider Colorado. Though the state has a reputation for political conservatism, Democrats have controlled both houses of the legislature since 2004. Sadly, great responsibility did not follow from this great power. One particularly notable bill required "the owner of a cat that is 4 months or older to ensure that the cat has a form of identification on or in its body." Shouldn't pet owners be able to take care of that on their own?

Thankfully, that waste of paper didn't make it very far. But both Colorado houses did pass S.B. 14, which allows "vehicles with deficient splash-guards to remain in service for the limited time necessary to replace the splash guards." While drivers may appreciate the grace period, the drafting process for this vaguely worded bill seems like an awful waste of tax dollars.

Nor are Colorado Democrats the only ones circulating suspect bills. State Republicans introduced, and then the governor passed, H.B. 1027, a law that describes in great detail those situations where drivers should yield the right-of-way to transit buses entering traffic. But isn't that what traffic signs are for? Do Colorado drivers really need a new law instructing them to yield to buses?

In the Midwest, things aren't much better. Michigan recently saw the introduction of H.B. 4530, which would "prohibit employers from making employment decisions based upon certain factors that are unrelated to employment." Specifically, it means that employers may not ask about the health status of any member of an employee's family, a regulation that will prove particularly onerous for business owners. For instance, employees would now have an added incentive to purchase health care for family members who have smoked for many years, thus raising health premiums for employer and employee.

Georgia state Sen. Robert Brown (D-Macon) is another notable offender. He's the primary author of 33 bills that commend, recognize, or offer condolences to some particular person or group, yet do absolutely nothing to contribute to the welfare of the state's citizens. Among other things, Brown's bills have established a Black Contractors Day and recognized film and television director Tyler Perry for his contributions to the arts. Among the handful of bills Brown sponsored that have actually done something—good or bad—one would increase the minimum wage, "provide a credit toward the minimum wage for employers of tipped workers [and] eliminate various eligibility exemptions from the minimum wage."

Then there's Arkansas. Despite having a short legislative session, Arkansas lawmakers have a unique talent for crafting bad laws. One recent bill proposed two new state fish. Remember that elected officials actually spent time writing and debating that piece of legislation. Another bill would have allowed the state and its counties and municipalities to increase the interest rate on revenue bonds for public projects. This means that because of the economic downturn, state, county, and municipal governments cannot issue bonds at a rate where people will buy them. By raising the rate, state and local governments can continue to sell bonds to finance government projects. So much for the idea of government living within its means.

But the worst of the lot may be H.B. 1586, which was drafted to "solve" the problem of underage drinking in the Natural State. This bill would make it a class-A misdemeanor to allow anyone under 21 who isn't a family member to drink alcohol on private property, or even to remain on private property after consuming alcohol. But all this does is criminalize parents attempting to provide a safe alternative to drinking and driving. It also potentially penalizes those parents who unwittingly play host to teenage parties.

Sadly, many frivolous and harmful bills made it through the legislature without any uproar. Rep. Dan Greenberg (R-Little Rock) is in his second term and has a reputation for authoring libertarian bills like "The Open Checkbooks in Government Act." Greenberg told me he believes that when it comes to his state, the political culture is as much to blame as the people. "[In the legislature] it's understood as bad manners…There's pressure not to have public disagreements. We'd have a much healthier political culture if we'd get more comfortable with the notion that it's okay to disagree with other people."

Perhaps that's one reason why so many destructive bills survive local legislatures. With lawmakers remaining silent, citizens have no reason to pay attention. Thankfully, blogs and grassroots activism have helped fill some of the information gap. Last year's "Idaho Stop Law," for example, would have made it legal for bicyclists to enter a stop sign-controlled intersection without stopping, so long as they yielded to traffic. But once constituents expressed concern the necessary votes failed to materialize.

Bad laws, in other words, will continue to proliferate until citizens speak out against the outrages occurring in their state legislatures. For the sake of both our rights and our wallets, let's hope that happens soon.

Nicole Russell is a regular contributor to The American Spectator and has written for Politico and National Review Online.