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. 

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