Every year the Colorado legislature considers hundreds of bills. It is practically impossible for any one person to fully track what the legislature is up to. Not even legislators can do it, which is why they divvy up bills by committee. So I do not pretend here to offer anything like a comprehensive look at this year’s legislation. Still, I’d like to glance at a few bills to draw to draw some general lessons.
First, here are some of the questions that I wish legislators would consistently ask themselves before sponsoring a bill:
* Is this the proper role of government? Lots of good ideas become bad ideas when implemented by state agents, who, in the final analysis, impose their will by brute physical force or threat thereof.
* Does existing legislation already adequately address the matter at hand? If so, the new bill is basically a publicity stunt.
* Does the problem at hand rise to the level of a priority for government, which has limited resources?
* Does a bill inappropriately impose costs on private parties in an effort to solve a public problem? If so, the bill is unfair.
* Does the bill seek the least-intrusive and least-costly way to address a problem, or does it overreach and reward special interests?
* Does a proposed legislative solution account for unintended consequences, or does it blindly manipulate incentives without thought to outcomes?
With those guiding questions in mind, let’s look at a few bills, as introduced.
College support for foster youth
Senate Bill 8 would provide “higher education support for foster youth.” The Colorado Sun published an article quoting sponsor Rachel Zenzinger about foster youth, “We”—the state of Colorado—”are their parent.”
Obviously foster kids generally have a rough lot in life. This bill pulls on the heart strings. My first thought is, why don’t the people most concerned about this problem lead an effort to raise more charity dollars to help foster youth? That would be the cleanest and least-controversial approach. Why does this have to be a government project? Not everything worth doing is worth doing through the coercion of the state.
If you buy that this is a legitimate government concern, is the bill sufficiently delimited? I don’t think so. The bill applies to any child who “has been placed in foster care . . . in Colorado at any time on or after the student’s thirteenth birthday,” or in some other cases. But there’s a big difference between a short stint in foster care in the broader context of a basically stable childhood and largely growing up in foster care.
Another important detail about the bill is that it puts much of the costs onto colleges, which means onto other tuition-paying college students. If paying for the college education of foster students is a proper government priority, shouldn’t government cover the relevant costs rather than push those costs onto other students?
Finally, why should government favor specifically college education, as opposed to on-the-job experience or a business venture? If the government owes foster youth a jumpstart in life, a straight-up cash grant would be more versatile.
The condiment police
House Bill 1134 requires that “a retail food establishment or third-party food delivery service . . . may provide a customer with single-use food serviceware or a single-use condiment . . . only if the customer requests” them, with a few exceptions. The bill—and I kid you not—carefully defines “single-use condiment” as including “ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, soy sauce, hot sauce, salsa, syrup, jam, jelly, sugar, salt, pepper, sweetener, or chili pepper.”
Bluntly, this bill is paternalistic bullshit. This sort of absurd, impossible-to-parody bill should immediately alert voters that they probably made a huge mistake in the last election and should correct course next time. Governing is serious business. This bill is a joke. Notably, the bill has both a Democratic and a Republican prime sponsor, Representative Brianna Titone and Senator Kevin Priola, illustrating that bipartisanship can as easily compound stupidity as mitigate it.
Micromanaging people’s utensils and condiments is simply not a legitimate function of government. People are perfectly capable of expressing their preferences in such matters without Big Nanny looking over their shoulders. Sheesh! (See also Jon Caldara’s criticism of this bill.)
Let liquor stores sell food
Did you know that government prohibits liquor stores from selling most food? Senate Bill 33 would somewhat lesson these restrictions. Government shouldn’t be in the business of micromanaging stores’ inventory anyway, so this bill is an obviously good idea, even though it doesn’t go far enough in removing restrictions. (Priola partially redeems himself by sponsoring this bill. Incidentally, he’s also a sponsor on the bill about foster youth.)
The bill’s summary explains: “Current law limits, with some exceptions, the amount of nonalcohol products a retail liquor store may sell by limiting the amount of annual gross revenues derived from the sale of nonalcohol products to 20% of the store’s total annual gross sales revenues. The bill adds fruit, vegetables, nuts, and meat, if not substantially modified, to the list of items a retail liquor store may sell” beyond the cap.
Freedom in America—what a concept. The main problem with this bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. We need to sweep away all such sales restrictions. This bill is such a good step in the right direction that, of course, the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology committee unanimously killed it on February 7. Hopefully it will be back next year.
Writing about three bills out of hundreds feels a bit like hand-raking the sands of a beach. The legislature runs so many bills, and embeds itself in so many aspects of our lives, that no normal person can hope to keep up with the workings of government in any detail. We can’t have “government by the people” when the people have little clue what government is up to. Maybe if voters ask more of the right questions legislators will try harder to run fewer bills and to make them count.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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