Legislative Foolishness

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Legislative Foolishness

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared in the April 1 edition of Boulder Weekly.

How many political rules can the camel carry before it collapses under the weight? The Colorado Revised Statutes fill around 20,000 pages in 13 volumes (11 volumes of statutes, plus an index and court rules). Has anybody actually read them?

I asked Colorado legislators whether they've read the statutes or this year's bills. I also asked them to name their most and least favorite bills of the session. Out of 100 legislators, five responded.

None of those five thinks any legislator has read all the statutes. The most optimistic reply came from Rep. Paul Weissmann (D-Louisville): "I take time to read sections at a time... so at some point I will be done reading the entire statutes."

In reply to how many pages the statutes fill, Weissmann said, "Too many! ... [I]n 1964 when I was born, the statutes were contained in four volumes, now it takes 13." In his book Drug War Addiction (which I helped edit), Sheriff Bill Masters of Telluride tells the story of how he found a Colorado statute book from 1908 that had been trapped between jail walls. "All the laws of the state fit in one volume. Murder, rape, assault, stealing, and trespassing were all against the law in 1908," he writes.

If not even the 100 men and women elected to pass the laws can read the existing statutes, how can the rest of us hope to keep track? Weissmann was the only legislator to respond who thought any Colorado citizen has read all the statutes, and he estimated fewer than 100 have done so. Masters points out the statutes "stack up about four feet high. And of course, predictably, lawlessness is commonplace, even in vogue. Most of the laws and regulations cannot be understood, and because of their sheer numbers they cannot possibly be enforced."

Civil rights attorney Paul Grant (who has represented me on a couple of political matters) agrees. "Nobody's ever read it." He said the collection of statutes is "poorly indexed... it's not intuitive, it's not logical, it's not common-sense, it's not anything, except haphazard. It's pathetic. It's a short-circuit of human reasoning."

But that doesn't stop each year's crop of legislators from trying to add to the text. All the bills, plus their histories, may be accessed at www.leg.state.co.us. This year the House considered over 400 bills; the Senate over 200.

So has any legislator or citizen read all those bills? Rep. Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton) replied, "As a rule I only read the bills assigned to the committees I serve on. I read the bills that are controversial when they reach the floor on second reading."

Similarly, Weissmann said, "I read all the bills I vote on. I do not read bills that are killed in committee or the Senate unless I have a specific interest in the topics. Just a side note: very few people even read all the bills they vote on. It does take a lot of work." He thought perhaps 25 citizens have read all the bills, again offering the most optimistic answer.

Sen. Ron Tupa (D-Boulder) said the statutes fill "too many" pages, he reads the bills he has a chance to vote on, and "very few" citizens have read all the bills.

Sen. Mark Hillman (R-Burlington) replied, "I read all the bills that come to my committee and read enough of each one to learn what it does and form an opinion." He thinks no legislator has read all the bills, "although several read the summary or fiscal analysis of each bill." And how many citizens have read the bills? "Other than lobbyists, none. I'd bet a steak dinner on it," Hillman said. Rep. Mike Cerbo (D-Denver), the fifth to reply, generally agreed with the others.

So why does Colorado have so many laws and bills that not even legislators can read them all? The main reason is that politicians keep meddling in more and more areas of our lives. Regular citizens don't even realize all the ways politicians try to run their lives. In addition, some politicians write redundant or unnecessary language merely to score political points. The new statutes don't actually accomplish anything, but they make for snappy campaign literature.

I wasn't enthused about the suggestions for best and worst bills, with the exception that Tochtrop "introduced legislation removing economic liability from the definition of blight. The legislation would have prevented municipalities from declaring an area blighted for economic gain which makes small business lose their property rights for big boxes." Rep. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) offered a similar bill to provide even better protection for property owners. In general, about the only new language I support limits political power.

Weissmann tried again, and failed again, to remove Colorado's blue laws, which prevent us from buying liquor and cars on Sunday. Weissmann can't talk enough Republicans into supporting free markets.

My vote for worst bill of the session goes to 1078 by Rep. Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch). This ridiculously broad bill imposes criminal penalties if stores and individuals fail to adequately hide sexually explicit material from minors. Given the competition, though, to say Harvey's bill is terrible is hardly to mark it for distinction.

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