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Editorial: Get with the times

With the Wisconsin Legislature gearing up, there’s a lot to get done. In discussions at our office this week we thought of something we’d like to see legislators do, but it might take a bit more time than most legislative tasks.

Laws have a funny way of enduring well past the events that prompted their creation. Some never made a great deal of sense. In Washington, for example, it’s illegal to harass Bigfoot in some counties. Seriously. It’s a felony.

In Gainsville, Georgia, you can’t use utensils to eat fried chicken under a law passed in 1965. A visitor to the area was charged in 2009 with eating fried chicken with a fork, though the charge was a publicity stunt and immediately dismissed. Another community prohibited chickens from crossing the road, putting an end to many bad jokes.

A California city prohibited spitting except for baseball diamonds (no word on dentists’ offices), and a Connecticut community said pickles must bounce in order to be called pickles. Chicago apparently banned giving whiskey to dogs. You have to wonder what prompted that one. The same goes for the Maryland law that prohibits people from bringing lions to movies.

Wisconsin isn’t immune to unusual laws. Sun Prairie, for instance, has a chapter on nuclear policy as part of its city code. As one might expect, nukes are banned: “No nuclear weapons, delivery systems for such weapons, or components expressly intended to contribute to the operation, guidance or delivery of a nuclear weapon shall be produced within the city.”

Amusing as it would be to spend the rest of this piece looking at other odd laws, we do have a serious point. Most laws that become curiosities, like the ones that were designed to keep early automobiles from spooking horses on the roads, eventually get taken out of the code. Someone notices that they just don’t make sense anymore and the governing body eliminates the outdated item.

It can take years or decades for such a correction to take place, though. Going through a state or city legal code with a fine tooth comb to find outdated items isn’t the most engaging activity, so few people do it. The result is what we see above, with laws that may once have had a point eventually becoming useless.

What people may not consider is that other legislative actions can do precisely the same thing. That includes tax breaks.

When government creates a tax break to promote growth in, say, a new industry, it rarely gives much thought to how long that break will stand. Eventually it can simply become part of the state’s backdrop, even if the industry in question has matured substantially.

Without periodic reviews, those breaks can wind up costing the state revenue. And, in a time when things like education funding are hard up for cash, eliminating outdated breaks makes sense.

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about ending every tax break or even anything close to that. The majority that we’ve seen on Wisconsin’s books continue to make sense. What we would like to see happen is creation of a standing committee to review such things in an effort to head off outdated items before they become fossilized pieces of the state code.

Such a review would need to take its time and, ideally, would include legislators who are well versed in the state’s tax policies. A quick review, scanning the code in a perfunctory manner, wouldn’t accomplish desirable results.

The same goes for a committee tasked with reviewing the state’s legal code. As society changes, the code needs to do so as well. Failing to periodically review the laws will, eventually, lead to some being so outdated that they become punch lines, or to enforcement of something that’s a ridiculous waste of a court’s time.

After all, does anyone really camp on a highway in a wagon anymore? Bad news if that’s your plan for the summer. Statute 86.025 prohibits the practice. But, with a maximum fine of $10, it’s still cheaper than a hotel room.

— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram


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