Sunday, November 12, 2000

Lawmakers


The drivel is about to double

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        Oh, good. We'll now be getting twice as much drivel from Frankfort.

        What were people thinking when they voted last week to create annual sessions of the General Assembly?

        Now we will have double the pointless arguments over the Ten Commandments. Double the onslaught of silly, unpassable bills.

        It's naive to think a legislature meeting more frequently will be more careful with our money. More government begets more government. It's never the other way around.

        At this point, we have no choice but to hope for the best. Annual sessions have one positive side: They give lawmakers the chance to fix dumb mistakes immediately.

        When they convene in January, they should at least repeal this year's sneaky increase in legislative pensions. On the last day of the session, a Republican senator tacked a jargon-filled amendment onto a routine bill. It passed without the full understanding of some lawmakers. The effect was to significantly increase some pensions.

        Maybe our representatives need better retirement. Regardless, they should have openly debated the question.

        Another task for January: repealing Kentucky's property tax on cars. Voters demanded this in 1998, when they passed a Constitutional amendment clearing the way.

        Legislators didn't respond. They did, however, file an astounding 1,441 bills this year. Of those, 33 percent became law.

        Some were trivial but harmless — designating the official state steam locomotive, for instance.

        Others represented the sort of meddling that will only increase with annual sessions.

        For example, the legislature ordered local school boards to have policies on student possession of pagers and cellular phones. They passed this law to correct an earlier one, which flat-out banned the devices.

        Geez. Why did they get involved in the first place? This is a matter for school boards alone.

        New Hampshire's experience with annual sessions is no comfort. It was the last state to switch, doing so in 1985.

        Tom Rath, a well-known lawyer in New Hampshire's capitol, says the result has been “an explosion of legislation.”

        The state had wanted annual sessions to clear up budget confusion, he says. Its budget must be passed by July 1, but federal funding wasn't known until October. The idea was to reserve the new session for fixing the discrepancies.

        “That's what they thought, and that's exactly what has not happened,” says Mr. Rath, the state's former attorney general.

        “You wonder, in a state like New Hampshire, whether you really need 1,400 or 1,500 pieces of legislation — whether there's really that much wrong.”

        The state did pass a rule that bills failing in one year could not be reintroduced in the next. But you can imagine the loopholes: “This bill is different. It's printed in boldface.”

        Legislatures tend to expand to fill the size of their authority, Mr. Rath says. People are in the capitol, so they feel obliged to work.

        “A friend used to say, "The worst thing that ever happened to Congress was when they air-conditioned the Capitol,” Mr. Rath says.

        Now there's an idea. If it goes horribly wrong in Frankfort, some enterprising soul could always “fix” the cooling system.

       Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 859-578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.

       



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