There Ought To Be A Law! Or Several Laws!

Editorial written by James Baughn on Tuesday, January 23, 2001

from the bills-for-the-rest-of-us dept.

Last month I wrote an editorial about "perennial legislation", those bills lacking in any serious merit but nevertheless keep reappearing in the Missouri General Assembly. Now that I've ranted about bad bills, I'm going to rant about good bills. The following are proposals for legislation that I think deserve at least some attention.

I'll be the first to admit, though, that these ideas are pipe dreams with little chance of becoming law. But we can always hope.

Plain English Amendment

Every law or regulation must be written in plain language that any typical high school graduate can comprehend.

This is an amendment to the US (or Missouri) Constitution that sets firm limits on how outrageous lawmakers can be while practicing their craft. The P.E.A. would finally put an end to the US Tax Code, that monstrosity of bureaucratese that no single person is capable of fully understanding without succumbing to insanity.

The goal of this amendment is to make government more accessible -- and simpler. People will no longer need lawyers to "interpret" the strange language of statutes and regulations; they can read it for themselves. It would also put the government on a diet: bureaucratic fat won't last long if laws and regulations are translated into plain English.

Finally, this proposal will indirectly improve the quality of America's public school system. I'm not kidding. The complexity of the laws will be related to the quality of education. If the schools crank out a bunch of illiterates, that will put a real damper on the kind of legislation that lawmakers can pass. If, however, the government takes action to improve education, the bar will be raised, and lawmakers will have more freedom in what they can create. It's a perfect self-regulating system.

Precedent: Recently the Securities and Exchange Commission enacted a Plain English regulation for stock prospectuses. So this idea has some precedent going for it.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty Act

Law enforcement may only confiscate property from drug dealers after they have been convicted in a court of law. Law enforcement may only confiscate property owned solely by the convict. Law enforcement must hand over the majority of booty to local school districts.

We need to put an end to the casualties of the "War On Drugs". If the police engage in a "confiscate property, ask questions later" policy and it causes an innocent person to be deprived of their property, the police had better be prepared to pay the price -- and then some.

And if the police wish to engage in a "confiscate property no matter who owns it" policy, and the forfeited property turns out to be owned by somebody other than the person convicted of dealing drugs, then the police had better be prepared to give it back -- and then some.

Finally, the bulk of seized property should go directly to the local school system. If a town is in such poor shape that the local police are confiscating millions of dollars worth of drug booty, then I think the local school district is probably in desperate need of funding! (And those areas where drug use is less prevalent probably don't need the money quite as bad.) Again, this is a self-regulating system.

Case in point: A former deputy sherriff in New Jersey fell victim to the state's asset forfeiture laws when her car was seized because her son used it to sell marijuana to an undercover officer (without her knowledge). Her court challenge was successful. It doesn't make sense to punish people because they are merely related to criminals, but that's exactly what these laws do.

Fairness In Drug Testing Act

Any school that requires student drug testing must also require drug testing for all school board members, administrators, and faculty. If the state requires drug testing for any state employees, then it must require drug testing for all people on the state payroll, including elected representatives.

It's only fair that the people who decree that other people should be subject to privacy violations should be subject to those same violations themselves. If a community decides that fighting crime outweighs the pitfalls of mandatory drug testing, then that policy should be carried out equally among everyone. Yet again, this is a self-regulating system: those in power will treat their power a little more seriously if they are subject to it just like everyone else.

A few years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that a state law in Lousiana requiring drug testing for elected officials was a violation of the US Constitution. This is a hypocritical position that must be changed: apparently elected officials are covered by this Constitutional protection but other people (high schools students involved in extra curricular activities, for instance) are not. Therefore, either mandatory drug testing should be abolished across-the-board, or applied equally across-the-board, with no exceptions.

Keeping The Greedy Bastards Honest Act

Annual salary increases for state legislators may not exceed the average increase in salary for state employees.

There's absolutely no excuse for lawmakers to receive a roughly 11 percent pay increase if most everyone else on the state payroll is struggling by with 1 or 2 percent increases. If Representatives and Senators want a raise, that's fine -- just as long as they bring enough money for everyone.

Indeed, it might prove beneficial to apply this law to all branches of state government. Increases in the salaries of state university presidents, for instance, would be tied to increases in the salaries of all college faculty. Such a self-regulating policy would keep the exorbitant salaries of the most powerful in check, while giving needed raises to every other state employee.

Keeping The Greedy Bastards Honest Act II

Any donation given to a political candidate or interest group should be fully disclosed to the public. However, all limits on donations should be repealed.

People can talk about "campaign finance reform" all they want, but such proposals only close some loopholes while quietly opening others. If you put a limit on "soft money" contributions, people will find a way to give "squishy money" contributions that don't apply. And if "squishy money" is outlawed, then somebody will find a loophole allowing "mushy money". Or whatever.

One possible solution is to loosen the laws to allow any kind of donation, no matter what. If you want to give a boatload of money to the "Association Of Progressive Baby Boomers Against Wearing Baseball Caps Backwards" so they can run negative campaign ads against a candidate, then that's your perogative.

But there's one catch. In exchange for that freedom, the recipient must fully disclose the details of your contribution by posting it on the Internet and forwarding it to the media. This way, the public can make an informed decision about who they should vote for. Which candidate is the lesser "evil"? Which candidate accepted the least amount of money from "evil" sources? With the help of the Internet and the media, you'll hopefully be able to make a wise decision.

It's not a perfect solution, of course, because it violates privacy and anonymity. But it preserves free speech while reducing corruption and dirty tricks.

It's Not Just A Piece Of Paper Act

If a government agency performs an act that is later declared Unconstitutional by any court, that agency shall be liable for any damages caused by their disrespect for the law.

State governments have been quite successful in suing entire industries, such as "Big Tobacco". And individuals (with their lawyers) have been quite successful in suing large corporations, such as McDonalds over spilled coffee. But even with the overlawyerization of the country, the old adage is still true: You can't fight City Hall.

As much as I dislike rampant litigation, I also dislike rampant disrespect for the Bill of Rights. Therefore, it should be possible to sue -- and win damages from -- any government body that causes harm via an Unconstitutional act.

Why not? If a corporation screws up, they will pay dearly for it in court. But if the government screws up, they won't pay for it (but if you're the victim, then you'll be the one paying dearly for it).

Putting The Safety Back In Public Safety Act

The majority of revenue collected from traffic tickets shall be used exclusively for highway improvements.

This is a proposal I've mentioned before in relation to cities that collect an obscene percentage of their revenue from traffic tickets. Meanwhile, Missouri is struggling to raise sufficient funding to maintain and improve the state's aging highway system.

In Bel-Ridge, Missouri, the village collected over $600,000 in 1998 alone from fines (although some of those tickets were... suspicious). That's a considerable chunk of change that would go a long way to rebuilding a dangerous intersection, or removing a blind curve, or widening a busy street, or any number of highway improvements that would lead directly to improved safety.

Therefore, in the interest of saving lives -- which is what all of this is supposed to be about in the first place -- cities should be compelled to spend the majority of their income from traffic tickets on bona fide improvements to dangerous highways. They can keep a portion for funding their police department, but beyond that, safety should be the only priority.