Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dumb Law Alert: Kansas Senate Passes Big Brother Laws

UPDATE: A third "big brother" bill was passed today in the Kansas Senate. This time it was Senate Bill 59 which would create a new law that says that if anyone in a vehicle is not wearing a seat belt, and would increase the total fine to $100, including court costs. The bill, which passed 23-17, would take the seat belt law from a secondary law to a primary law. In the past, tickets for not wearing seat belts could only be issued if a driver was pulled over for another offense.

In the midst of all the buzz surrounding the Kansas budget crisis, other items of note making their way through the legislature are getting less attention -- perhaps less attention than they deserve.

This happens each year of course -- when by suprisingly large majorities, both houses of the Kansas Legislature enact legislation which either maintain or expand Kansas' well deserved reputation as a big government state. Sadly, these bills are rarely given scrutiny by the mainstream press or even alternative media, which are understandly focused on "bigger" issues such as the budget.

With that in mind, we at Kaw & Border have decided to launch a new series entitled the "Dumb Law Alert" -- an alert which we will sound whenever we discover a new "dumb law" is being proposed or enacted. Kicking off this new series are two bills passed just this very week by the Kansas Senate:

- Senate Bill 145, which passed the Senate 33-6. As described in the bill's supplemental note:

SB 145 would amend current law to require vehicles to be driven in the right
lane when two lanes of traffic are going in the same direction on a highway
outside of any city. It also would require vehicles on highways with three or
more lanes proceeding in the same direction not to be driven in the far left

The main exception this to be would be if you are passing another vehicle. So basically, if this bill gets through the House and is signed by the Governor, it will be illegal for you to drive in the left lane if you are outside of city limits and not passing someone.

Huh? Are we serious?

Out of all the dumb laws proposed each year, traffic laws are probably among the worst. While the fiscal note on this bill is minimal, our question is whether our state's fine highway patrol should really be concerned with people who are simply driving in the left lane.

Some of our basic questions are these:

1. What is the real harm in someone driving in the left lane? What if someone is generally going faster than traffic -- is there really any harm in that car remaining in the left lane, rather than moving back and forth?

2. Since apparently it still is okay to drive in the left lane within city limits, how exactly will people know what is in the city limits and what is outside the city limits, particularly in rural sections of highway in Kansas?

3. The supplemental note indicates that for the first year, people will receive a warning when driving in the left lane. Our question is -- will there be signs indicating that people need to stay in the right lane? If not, why not? Are people just supposed to assume that it is illegal to do so?

4. How will a highway patrolman be able to define what is passing someone? If I am driving a car, and I see a semi driving slow 500 feet ahead, am I allowed to go ahead and get in the left lane? Or do I need to wait? Will there be postings on highways indicating this? If not, how will courts decide who is right if a ticketed person objects?

And finally...

5. What is the point of having a multi-lane highway if you can only drive in one lane?

In our eyes, this is just another small step down big brother road. Earlier this year, though not enacted, there were proposals to reduce the speed limit to reduce energy consumption. In recent years, there have been bills proposed and in some cases, enacted, governing everything from seat-belt use to helmet use to confusing new regulations governing minors driving.

Of course, while our legislators may feel good about passing these laws, one wonders if their constituents would be happy knowing they were wasting time and expanding government authority in such a way. People forget that in order for these laws to be enforced, time and resources must be taken away from the highway patrol. What if human enforcement isn't effective? Will we start to implement more expensive remedies such as highway cameras?

The gap between that step and now is not large.

We are dissapointed with conservatives who voted for this bill but also want to thank those six Senators who did not (including two Democrats) -- Senators Mary Pilcher Cook, Susan Wagle, Tim Huelskamp, Dennis Pyle, Janis Lee and Marci Francisco.

- Senate Bill 25, which passed the Senate 26-13, otherwise known as the Kansas Indoor Clean Air Act. This, of course, was the bill banning smoking in most public places. As noted in the supplmental note, these areas would include:
  • Public Places
  • Taxicabs
  • Restrooms, lobbies, hallways and other common areas in public and private buildings, condos, or other multi-residential facilities.
  • Restrooms , lobbies, and common areas of hotels and motels and in at least 80% of the rooms in a hotel or motel.
  • Access points of all bulidings and facilites (i.e., doors) -- a 10 foot radius around such a point
  • Any place of employment
Of course, like any piece of legislation, there are exemptions, including:
  • Outdoor areas of any buliding beyond the access points.
  • Private homes or residences (well, at least they haven't gone this far)
  • Hotel or motel rooms no greater as long as the # of rooms is no greater than 20%
  • The gaming floor of a lottery gaming facility or racetrack gaming facility
  • The portion of an adult care home that is desingated as a smoking area and is fully enclosed and ventilated.
  • Tobacco shops (this one made us laugh)
  • "Class A and Class B clubs' holding a licensed as of January 1, 2009 and who notify the Secretary of Health and Environment in writing withi 90 days after the effective date of this bill that they would like to continue to allow smoking.

Finally, there is the penalty provision:

Up to $100 for the first violation
Up to $200 for the second violation (within a year of the first violation)
Up to $500 for the third and subsequent violations (within a year of the first violation).

This bill, which had been brought to the Senate in past years, is both laughable and sad in so many ways, not to mention hypocritical.

First, there is the philosophical argument about whether this is the proper role of government to regulate something to this extent. Minors, public buildings, etc. are one thing. Private businesses, including restuarants and bars, are quite another. If Joe Bar Owner wants to have a bar that caters to smokers, why is it the business of any level of government, particularly the state, to say he can't? Do we really want the police going around and issuing citiations for people lighting up a cigarette? For people to get fined??

Now, some will say "but what about the people who work there who don't want to smell the smoke". There is a clear answer -- work somewhere else! The fact is that tobacco is still legal, and if a business wants to cater to those who like to smoke, that's there right -- and you don't have to work there.

Second of all, there is the argument that the market will take care of this issue. The fact is more and more people are choosing not to smoke (a very good thing) and thus, there are plenty of choices out there that do not allow smoking. Likewise, if a customer doesn't want to be in a smoking restaurant, they can choose to take their business elsewhere. It isn't a hard concept.

Third of all, there is the hypocrisy in the bill of exempting the state's state owned business, casinos. Apparently some are okay with protecting the public health, but not those citizens stupid enough to go waste money in a casino, right? Or could it be that the state's public health concerns stop where their own "state owned" business begins? Funny -- it's justifiable to ban smoking in a small bar in a town that hasn't enacted its own smoking ban -- but it's not okay to ban smoking in a large casino that draws people from all over the state and region. Nice logic.

Fourth, there is the ridiculous extent to which this bill expands government authority. Who thought up the 80% number when it comes to hotels? If a hotel wants 50% of its rooms to be smoking rooms, why is that the government's business? Again, let the market take over here -- the likelihood is hotels and motels will regulate themselves in this area, as most people don't smoke and will want a non-smoking room. Not a hard concept, is it? But, no, government must police the EXACT amount of rooms that hotels and motels can allow smoking in?

Fifth, there is the argument about exactly how much harm second hand smoke causes. Do we seriously need a 10 foot radius around all entrance points, even though they are outside? If anyone can point to one person who got cancer by walking past a smoker in the outdoors, please e-mail us.

Finally, there is the fact that tobacco, when compared to alcohol, is much less dangerous in terms of it's immediate impact. One could argue that three of four drinks at your local pub is much more potetially harmful than a couple of cigarettes. And, please, do not give me that ridiculous argument that there is second hand smoke, but not second hand booze. Please -- what about the family that is killed by a drunk driver, or a "slightly impaired" driver who had just a drink or two? What about the recovering alcoholic who is simply having dinner and is led "off the wagon" by witnessing those around him drink up? Are these not public health concerns too?

Of course they are. But, the fact is, the majority of people drink and like to drink in public. There is even legislation to expand the avaibility of alcohol in public places such as festivals. Why? Alcohol, unlike tobacco, is not the convenient whipping boy for do-gooder health police Senators like David Wysong, the leading proponent of this bill. Smoking is the big bad evil.

Of course, you know that the do-gooders will not stop with this bill. They never do. The next thing will be banning smokers from employment, or banning its use in apartments and condos altogether -- claiming that too much of the "common air" is shared.

In closing, here are the Yeas and Nays on this bill:

Yeas: Barnett, Brownlee, Brungardt, Colyer, Emler, Faust-Goudeau, Francisco, Haley,
Hensley, Kelly, Kelsey, Kultala, Lee, Lynn, McGinn, Morris, Owens, Reitz, Schmidt D,
Schmidt V, Schodorf, Taddiken, Teichman, Umbarger, Vratil, Wysong.
Nays: Abrams, Apple, Bruce, Donovan, Holland, Huelskamp, Marshall, Masterson, Ost-
meyer, Petersen, Pilcher-Cook, Pyle, Steineger

We find it ironic that the main proponents of this bill are primiarly moderate Republicans and Democrats, the same folks who claim we need to be more tolerant, more progressive, and more accepting of other people's choices. Yet these same folks, rather than being patient and letting education and the market take care of smoking, seem destined to regulate smokers to their own homes, labeling them societal pariahs.

It's a sad day in Kansas.