Laws of unintended consequences

So many bad laws, so many scandals, so little time

With all the time and credibility that have been blown by California’s Legislature and governor on Vitamin-Gate, Speaker-Gate, Shelley-Gate and various other political and ethical dustups, it’s hardly shocking that the single biggest thing Sacramento has achieved in 2005 is an agreement to build a bridge.

You may have seen some of the self-congratulating and back-patting the politicians have been engaged in ever since they announced that California—the world’s sixth-largest economy—is indeed capable of building a bridge over San Francisco Bay to make up for one damaged by an earthquake. Apparently, the big dogs in Sacramento do not grasp that erecting public-works projects is one of the few reasons we actually need them around.

My God, this wasn’t the Kyoto Treaty.

Yet, maybe I should applaud how little is being achieved in Sacramento these days. Sure, the Legislature once again failed to address major societal issues. Take the example of the high costs of prescription drugs. For years, our Legislature has ducked the issue, and its gross inaction finally has inspired two competing November ballot measures aimed at pharmacy costs.

That’s the bad side of legislative inaction. But on the other hand, the pols have been so busy with their scandals and circuses, they haven’t had as much time as usual to approve scads of awful new California state laws. That’s the good side.

Although I am a fiscally conservative Democrat, nothing sets off my libertarian streak like the 1,000-plus new laws sent to the governor for his signature each year. Many of the laws that reach the governor’s desk are under the rubric known as the Laws of Unintended Consequences. Energy deregulation is the prime example of that principle.

This year, however, legislators have been far too busy with scandals to dig into anything as complex as the energy industry. Thank fate for that. The most exciting scandal, of late, has been Vitamin-Gate, being the tale in which our pro-disclosure Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly inked a deal to be paid more than $5 million over five years by two muscle magazines—his cut of the magazines’ ad revenues.

Sometime after cutting the deal, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill by state Senator Jackie Speier of Hillsborough to restrict controversial bodybuilding supplements—the very sort of products whose manufacturers advertise in the magazines who hired the governor for millions of dollars.

Such incredible hubris. Apparently, Schwarzenegger learned nothing from the antics of Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez of Los Angeles, caught this spring in an embarrassing ethics flap when it was revealed that he, too, had a lucrative side job—working for a group controlled by a powerful Los Angeles labor-union boss.

Núñez, arguably the most hostile speaker to businesses in decades, got nailed for wearing two hats after people noticed a bizarre news lead buried in a fluff piece in the Los Angeles Times. The buried lead explained that Núñez had a side job under the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief, Miguel Contreras.

The Núñez gig didn’t pay millions like Arnold’s, but it put Núñez under the thumb of a sly political kingmaker, Contreras, who recently died. Why would an elected speaker taint himself by working under a labor boss who regularly had major business before the California Legislature?

The answer, both in Speaker-Gate and Vitamin-Gate, was the same pathetic excuse: What the governor did and what the speaker did wasn’t against the law.

Don’t you love these guys? I’m beginning to see the silver lining in their attitudes. They and other ethically challenged pols (i.e., Kevin Shelley) have kept the Capitol so busy with turmoil that we may see a corresponding drop in the statehouse’s odiferous annual output.

Of laws, I mean.

Most Californians haven’t got a clue what they can and cannot do in California, because the Legislature approves roughly three new laws every single day. Scary. Hardly anyone knows about my favorite new worst California law, which requires motorists to turn on their headlights whenever there’s enough rain to warrant windshield wipers, even in the middle of the day.

Um, does that apply while I’m at the car wash? And do I turn on my headlights before or after I flip the Legislature the bird? Can I do those actions with different hands?

In 2004, Schwarzenegger signed a lot of stinkier laws, including one law banning younger teens from using tanning salons even with parental permission and another giving American Indian tribes a chance to meddle in municipal development that’s none of their business. But, on the positive side, Schwarzenegger vetoed more bills than any governor had killed in several years (including that pesky bodybuilding-supplements law). In fact, compared with Gray Davis, Arnold’s a paragon of limited government.

But now we face a new raft of bills from 120 state legislators angling to get their most misguided pet projects onto the governor’s desk by September. A lot of the worst laws are predicated on the utter fallacy that we’ll all live longer if only the California Legislature acts now to protect us.

The contenders for worst laws of 2005 include two “junk science” bills known as Senate Bill 484 and Assembly Bill 908, by state Senator Carole Migden of San Francisco and Assemblywoman Judy Chu of Monterey Park, respectively.

These bills are likely to cost consumers a fortune—especially women who dominate the cosmetics market. S.B. 484 is an effort to force popular cosmetics companies—including those successful Earth-friendly folks who make non-allergenic and organic cosmetics never tested on animals—to launch absurd inquiries into whether any of the 4,000 ingredients found in their creams, colorings and sprays might cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.

I wonder if tea-tree oil—which is in a lot of stuff I slather on—makes mice puke when they guzzle a gallon? Better find out. Then I can stop worrying about secondhand smoke and salt, and focus on that instead.

The other bill, A.B. 908, is an example of California’s embarrassing slide into Euro-copying. Chu seeks to ban substances found in exceedingly minute quantities in fragrance and hair spray—substances that U.S. experts already have reviewed for safety, in the safest nation in the world. Driven by women’s groups in Europe that touted studies showing the substances are carcinogenic in high doses (what isn’t?), lawmakers banned them. Now California is hot to do so. Proponents even roped the Girls Scouts into endorsing the bill.

I certainly hope Migden and Chu don’t hear about a recent study showing that long-distance runners can become deathly ill by drinking too much water. That certainly would necessitate a fat new California fee for reckless marathoners who over-imbibe.

By press time, neither of the junk-science laws had reached the governor’s desk, but if they do, I hope Arnold vetoes them. I’d like to slather on my tea-tree oil in peace.

Since we’re on the topic of politically correct laws, one bit of good news is that Schwarzenegger just vetoed Senate Bill 573 by the normally reasonable state Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles. Her law would have forced health-insurance companies in California to write policies that cover the injuries alcoholics do to themselves—while drunk. Right now, insurers can write a provision stating that they are not liable, but Romero found that outrageous.

I’ve dubbed S.B. 573 the Alcoholics Bill of Rights. It mirrors the view of far too many California legislators determined to create a world where consequences do not exist and somebody else picks up the tab (in this case, the higher costs to insurers would be passed to other policyholders—like you).

Schwarzenegger writes polite veto messages. The one killing S.B. 573 said, “Last year I vetoed a nearly identical bill, SB 1157 (Ortiz). I continue to encourage the healthcare profession to conduct screenings and offer counseling and intervention services for drug and alcohol abuse. Coverage for services for injuries incurred due to alcohol and drug use should be available, but not mandated.”

Sometimes, Arnold gets it right.

However, once the Legislature returns from its summer break, a flurry of bad laws will be approved and sent to him. I’m certainly not recommending more scandals as a way to keep their little hands busy. After all, scandals hurt the democracy and turn people off to politics—as we saw with disgraced former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who used his elective post to favor Democrats even though Shelley was elected to represent voters of every political persuasion.

Sadly, the ethical dustups surrounding Shelley, Núñez and Schwarzenegger have done us all a service. The hubris-blinded Schwarzenegger got a very badly needed dose of humility; Núñez’s finger-pointing, smart-aleck attitude was moderated (a bit), and Shelley, the most abusive boss in Sacramento, was pushed to resign.

If my theory is right, the far-too-busy Legislature this year will send fewer new laws to Schwarzenegger, and we’ll all be better off. But if my theory is wrong, which is entirely possible, the bunch in charge not only will be remembered for its ethical missteps, but also will send the governor three pointless new laws per day. After all, these are the same geniuses who figured out how to build a bridge in San Francisco, all by themselves.