Monday, September 16, 2013

Loving the Sinner AND the Revenue

Whenever you hear someone complain that a legislative proposal is a “sin tax” and an attempt to “legislate morality,” you can take that as code for, “I don’t have a real case against this tax proposal, so I will use this fall-back argument.” It’s the last-resort argument that requires no reasoning. Sadly, it usually works.

The Joint Revenue Committee is contemplating a rise in the tax on beer, to help pay for substance abuse programs. The current tax is minimal – 2 cents per gallon, unchanged in 80 years. The national average is 28 cents per gallon. The cost to microbreweries would be less than $100 per year, according to liquor dealers. The reason for raising the revenue is fiscal, not punitive. No one hates beer or beer-drinkers. So when you hear opponents raise the thin objection to “sin taxes,” you suspect they don’t have much else to say.

Something similar happened in the 2013 session with the cigarette tax proposal. The purpose was, in fact, was to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to a point that it would affect sales. It would stop kids from starting to smoke and urge smokers to quit. The tax revenue would be applied to substance abuse programs. This also had a strong financial component: lower smoking rates would save Wyoming taxpayers millions of dollars that are spent on smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

So the tobacco tax was going to yield improved health AND save tax dollars. In fact, actuaries had just issued figures on how much health insurance premiums could be raised to pay for all the health care costs associated with smoking. No moralizing– just the financial realities. Tax supporters had empirical evidence that raising cigarette prices decreases use. They had solid evidence how much smoking was costing the state – in human and financial terms. Not a word against smokers.

Predictably, tobacco representatives dusted off the old reliable claim that the tax was intended to impose moral behavior on poor, beleaguered smokers. They took umbrage, harangued against the phantom moralists and were outraged! It didn’t matter that the “moral” argument had never been made. I thought any seasoned legislator could see through that. First of all, legislators legislate morality all the time. Second, in this case it was an obvious distraction from the actual arguments.

The reason lobbyists use the “sin tax” and “legislate morality” arguments? Amazingly, they continue to be an effective way to distract and short-circuit forthright debate. And maybe some lawmakers appreciate the chance to duck the hard questions. Look for these old friends in 2014 if the beer tax proposal is introduced in the Wyoming Legislature. What are the odds?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It’s the Legislature, Not a Message Service

A disturbing trend in the Wyoming Legislature is the endorsement of that most self-indulgent and wasteful practice of writing bills that “send a message.”

Thirty years ago, that sort of thing merited a response from other legislators that the bill’s author should try writing a letter – and here’s a stamp and envelope. Or more recently, the sponsor would withdraw the bill after the “message” was considered delivered. That happened when a state senator, in a snit over an article by a University of Wyoming law professor, sponsored a bill to cut funding to the UW College of Law – you know, to send a message and teach a lesson and all that. Then he withdrew the bill before it went further.

That was bad enough, wasting precious legislative time and staff on a personal pique.

But now it’s good. We are getting more and more self-indulgent legislation. I think one of the new uses of this shameful legislation-as-message is to demonstrate bona fides for the benefit of critics and potential re-election opponents.  These bills get introduced, waste Legislative Service Office resources and consume precious committee time and floor debate. Legislators posture and preen and earn their credentials, and these bills actually advance until responsible legislators stop the proposals. A few actually make it through the whole process.

One of the most ridiculous was one known as the “doomsday bill” that anticipated the collapse of the federal government and Wyoming’s plans to proceed as an independent entity. The bill briefly was amended to establish a Wyoming naval capability, so the absurdity was complete.

During the 2013 session, a bill was introduced in the Senate to establish a voter ID law in Wyoming, to foil voter impersonations at the polls. Except that  this isn’t a problem in Wyoming. But one of the sponsors said he wanted to “send a message,” as if that was good enough reason to consume legislative time and money and perhaps clutter up Wyoming statutes with pointless restrictions. Oh, yes, and it also would suppress voting. The bill had several flaws, which dampened legislators’ enthusiasm to rewrite the bill in committee, but the idea was referred to interim work.

In the final hours of the 2013 session, a ridiculous gun-related amendment was appended to a very serious and necessary bill and almost killed the bill. But it had a message, so it was okay. A committee was urged to approve a bill because, while it really didn’t do anything, it gave Wyoming a good grade on a particular “report card.” That bill is now law.

Some “message” bills and amendments are ridiculous over-reaching. Some are silly and a waste of time and paper. Some are bad. They surely are wasteful, and in most Wyoming legislative sessions, there is no spare time and staff. 

I ask legislators to find better ways to scold, to exhort, to excoriate, to pontificate, to curry favor, to polish “credentials” with this or that interest group. Legislation is for real response to a serious need. Do you really need a section in Wyoming Statutes?  Write a letter, buy an advertisement, have a town meeting, get a soap box, get a Facebook page, start a newsletter.

This is the Legislature, not a message service.