Saturday, June 09, 2007

What loopholes do you see affecting people around you?

I will be gone for most of the next two weeks on vacation, so (as I do every June) I will leave a post that is worth chewing over:

Many years ago, I was a student at a small engineering college in Socorro, New Mexico. One year it rained a great deal, so the grass and all the grounds were lush and green. One day in late June I was walking along and saw the sprinkler system running full blast, with everything flooded and underwater. I said something about it to one of the groundskeepers and he told me that they had to use their water allocation by the end of that week, or it would be cut the next year, when it would be dry and they might need it. Apparently that was the way the system was set up by people who thought that even the weather could be made to comply with their red tape. Millions of gallons of water (a precious resource in the desert southwest) were being wasted instead of stored where they could be used to protect against a drought in the next year, all out of fear of a drought in the next year.

I've been thinking a lot about how legislation, while well meaning often results in unintended consequences, which were either not imagined by those crafting it, which were contemplated but dismissed as unlikely or negligible in their impact, or in rare cases were in fact the reason the law was crafted in the first place, and sold to a well-meaning but gullible public or legislature.

A prime example of the last on the list was the ballot proposition passed last year (last year's prop 207) and sold under the guise of protecting people against 'eminent domain,' in which municipalities were ordered to pay for any changes in property value as a result of zoning changes. This includes things like sign ordinances, and has as a result hamstrung the ability of cities and counties to control the urban environment and plan responsible growth (which is in fact what the writers, mainly developers, wanted all along but they claimed it was about eminent domain.) Under the text of a proposition, any individual landowner may sue any time there is a change in zoning, claiming (rightly or wrongly) that it has affected their property value, and this fact has already prevented cities from making changes in zoning to manage growth.

Another prime example from last year's legislative propositions (last year's prop 101) limits property tax hikes by any county, city, town or community college district to 2%. While I might not agree with the intended consequences (forcing these entities to hold down taxes and hence limiting tax investment) I can respect that this was the intent of the voters. However, by basing it on current rates, the unintended consequence has been to disproportionately punish counties and other entities which have been fiscally conservative in the past and held taxes down while keeping their taxing ability in abeyance, while in effect rewarding those who in the past have raised taxes the most, by giving the most room to raise them even further in the future.

As a matter of fact, another example (this time of a law which was not passed) is last year's prop 302, relating to the salaries of elected state legislators. Now, let me say right up front that I can certainly why most people voted against this one. Given the underfunding of our schools, police departments, counties and other entities that we've seen by this group of tax-cut happy legislators, I know why a lot of people felt they don't deserve a raise. And I'd agree fully that they don't deserve a raise. Let them try to make it on $24,000 a year, just like ordinary people in the state. The problem though is that not raising legislative salaries (as has not been done in many years) virtually guarantees that we will have a legislature full of people who are anything but ordinary, in fact are disproportionately rich. Keeping legislative salaries where they are in effect rewards people who can afford to serve for $24,000 (in fact many of them could probably afford to serve for nothing) while poor or middle class people can't afford to even take the time off from work to run for the legislature, let alone serve. I've heard the argument that serving in the legislature is a half-time job, so it should only pay a half-time salary; the fallacy here is that it only applies to legislators who can take half a year off of work and still have their jobs back when they get done, and with an uncertain start date. The irony is that by keeping legislative salaries low Arizona has in effect created the professional legislature that its opponents sought to prevent.

Let's get away from last year's ballot propositions. What about actual laws?

Here is one that always seems to get ignored. Included among all the anti-smoking laws is one which makes it a crime for adults to purchase cigarettes for children. I fully support this law. It does not however make an exemption for parents. In fact, no parent (and I am one) wants their kids to smoke (and if a parent does push smoking on their kids then that would constitute child abuse and could be dealt with in other ways). But by tying the hands of parents (who could otherwise use the opportunity to monitor their kids habits and talk to them about quitting while they are still young enough to do so relatively easily) we in effect open a whole new clientele up to drug dealers, who might otherwise never have a way to meet these kids. I know this happens (and where I first started thinking this might be a poorly written law) because of a kid telling another one in my presence that she didn't have any cigarettes because 'my friend got busted for meth.' So we in effect have made tobacco the new entry drug, and after spending some time getting to know the kids by buying cigarettes for them, it isn't too long before, 'smoke this one,' comes up. And heck, let's forget the drug dealers for a moment-- what a golden key we've just handed child molesters with this law. In effect, by trying to protect our children from the evils of tobacco, we've gotten to the point of taking what little authority parents still have on the issue away and letting it fall into the hands of people who may actually be out to harm these teens and pre-teens.

Another one which I was forced to confront lately is related to the law exempting groceries from sales tax (which I also fully support). Lately I've noticed (and my kids insist on making me notice) that people who make cheap toys that they sell in convenience stores have started including a mixture of toys and candy. I've not seen this in states that don't charge sales tax differentially for toys and food, so apparently this concoction was whomped up just for Arizona. The candy probably costs them less than a dime, so they can put it in a package with a $1.59 toy and raise the price to $1.69 (tax free). They end up making more money that way, the price ends up costing the consumer less and who loses? Well, the state budget and every teacher, every police officer, and every project which depends on state funding loses. So do the kids, since most of this candy is hard candy (like suckers) which are loaded with sugar and are the worst for their teeth. I don't think that the legislature had this in mind when they passed the exemption for groceries but it is an example of how people who shouldn't be covered by a law will find a loophole and crawl through it (simple solution: quit exempting candy from sales tax; Maybe then they will at least package the toys with jerky or with dried vegetables or something which would at least be nutritious.)

Those are a few of my most observed loopholes. What are yours?


Karen said...

Have a relaxing vacation!

Beth said...

Enjoy your vacation!!!! Thanks for your kind words.

Anonymous said...

I read about a case in Georgia where a seventeen year old was going to have to go to prison for ten years and register as a sex offender for having sex with a fifteen year old girl from the same high school.

I think that sex offender laws were written to prevent a 40 year old pervert from molesting a 16 year old, but to use them to prosecute kids who fool around in high school is an obvious misuse of the law, probably foisted on us by people who would make any fornication a crime if they could find a way to do it.