Sometimes, in frustration over a perceived injustice, it is easy to think, “there ought to be a law,” but Californians should be careful what they wish for.
The state is awash in laws. Every two-year session, lawmakers introduce thousands of bills, and in the most recent, the governor signed 1,708 into law.
This brings to mind an old German proverb, “The more laws, the less justice.” This is because many of these bills are intended to benefit narrow special interests, like government employee unions, rent seeking businesses and professional groups, and pet projects like high-speed rail.
Then there are the less damaging bills that still amount to a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, although many of these provide a good source of amusement. Although some of the silliest laws are at the local level – in Chico detonating a nuclear device will cost you $500, in Carmel women are prohibited from wearing high heels and in San Francisco it is illegal to store anything but a car in a garage – the state continues to attempt to be competitive. In California, it is illegal for a vehicle to exceed 60 mph if there is no driver.
In Sacramento, for many self-absorbed Legislators, getting a bill passed is an extension of their ego. Perhaps this helps explain why, some years ago, a bill was introduced to make the banana slug the state mollusk. That one did not pass, but still, California was the first state to adopt a state rock, serpentine. Ironically, after spending time on approving this selection in 1965, it came up again in 2010 when one state senator decided serpentine is politically incorrect because it contains asbestos and she promoted legislation to remove its state status.
For some, just introducing legislation, whether it passes or not, has become a source of income. Twenty years ago, one senator introduced 143 bills in one session. This turned out to be a pay for play scheme where bills were introduced for those willing to pay. This lawmaker ended up spending time in prison for accepting bribes, and the public scrutiny forced the politicians to limit the number of bills that can be introduced to 40. Still, with 120 legislators, this means that there is the potential to introduce a mind-boggling 4,800 bills, each with the potential to become law. And introducing bills remains an effective method for raising campaign cash.
Even the most innocuous seeming bills can be a problem for taxpayers. Several years ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger criticized the Legislature for dithering over finding a solution to the state’s then $26 billion deficit, while plenty of time was found to deal with the issue of cow tail docking.
While humane treatment of animals may deserve consideration, taking time to pass a law, like making Spanish moss the official state lichen, has a cost. Even if we consider lawmakers’ time worthless, and many do, there are still thousands of dollars spent on legal analyses by the Office of the Legislative Analyst and on printing costs.
This raises the question, do lawmakers still have too much latitude when determining how may bills they introduce? Some states, like Colorado, survive while limiting legislators to no more than five.
And what about the tens of thousands of laws already on the books? Certainly, there is justification to make an examination and to seek to simplify the legal code under which we all must live, by striking those found to be unnecessary.
Enter Senator John Moorlach who has kicked off the “There Ought Not Be a Law” project and is looking for submissions from the public on repealing laws that would help streamline government, and remove regulations that impose unreasonable burdens on taxpayers. The senator will be taking nominations for laws to be reduced or repealed until the first of the year.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association