Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Risks of Viral Legislating

"No one can say this is a junket." Or so said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, when responding to Denver Post coverage of the group's 87th annual conference in Vail. "This is a quality conference, and people recognize it as such."

Whatever you say, Sam. I suppose it's a question of semantics.

The event did have some appearances of a seminar. But the golfing and parties certainly might give taxpayers the wrong impression, given the financial hardships so many cities and counties are suffering at the moment. It didn’t help that one attendee, Glendale City Council member LuVerne Davenport, admitted to a reporter (who she didn’t know was a reporter) that the city’s six-member contingent was there to “goof off.”

This raises legitimate questions about fiscal responsibility; about whether it's a wise use of public resources in times such as these. But it's the networking and conferring I dread most. If they were really all just "goofing off," we'd have less to fear than if they're actually exchanging ideas and trafficking in policy prescriptions. That’s where the trouble begins.

The biggest problem with such events, in my opinion, isn't the waste of money or time. It's the fact that they can hasten the spread of stupid municipal fads, which seem to move like viruses through the body politic. It's not by chance that you read about something being approved by your city council this year that was approved by Boulder's city council last year. Most politicians are herd animals. When they aren't trolling newspaper headlines, searching for regulatory responses to the stories they read, they're being spoon-fed ideas by special interests and professional planning groups, or borrowing them from "colleagues" in other cities.

One purpose of associations like the Colorado Municipal League is to help bored or unimaginative legislators keep up with the latest governing fads, so they can stay busy and seem relevant. You've heard of viral marketing? There's also such a thing as viral legislating. And it's at these functions that such contagions are unleashed.

Because politicians are always looking for reasons to legislate, for "problems” to solve, for new excuses to "do good," they're highly susceptible to the sort of group-think that goes on at such conferences. One lousy governing idea, if raised in isolation, will most likely get shot down. And if approved, the damage it will do is limited in scope. But lousy ideas more easily germinate, gain credibility and spread when group-think is at work. And the damage can be more widespread, and become really serious, when this sort of viral legislating takes place.

The best reason to steer your local officials away from such events isn't to save tax money; it's to keep them focused on their own backyards, on the governing fundamentals, and to not give them any bright ideas. It's in places like Vail that they catch the activist itch, or Do-Gooders Syndrome, which almost always leads them off on larks. And it's this that explains why even local governments have a tendency over time to grow, spend more, regulate excessively and stray from core functions.

No vaccine as yet exists to guard against the threat of viral legislating, so the best way to protect local officials is quarantine. As constituents, we should insist that they avoid such conferences and seminars. As risky as such behaviors are to them, it’s we taxpayers who ultimately pay the price when they return from such conferences infected with the activist itch.

1 comment:

Jack McHugh said...

Ah yes, makes me think of the Detroit Chamber's annual shindig for Michigan's political class on Mackinac Island. Every year it's some new fad - mass transit, "green jobs," arts taxes, etc. Former Rep. Leon Drolet called it the effect "the Mackinac Triangle" (but he may have stolen the label from his friend and my colleague Ken B.)