When is a law not a law?

A philosophical question triggered by a specific actuality: a new law intended to inform the public about toxic algae blooms is pretty much a sham.

VPR’s Taylor Dobbs explains how it’s supposed to work:

The new law is know as Act 86, and it requires the Vermont Department of Health to start public outreach within one hour of finding out about a bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

Great idea, right?

Here’s the problem: there’s no mechanism to conduct real-time tracking of algae blooms. The Legislature passed a shiny new PR-friendly law — “Look, we’re doing something to ensure your safety!” — but did nothing about turning its good intention into reality. The monitoring effort is entirely in the hands of volunteers, and there’s a huge amount of ground to cover.

Schoolhouse Rock: Only a billThis is one of those things they didn’t tell you in that Schoolhouse Rock video: a bill is meaningless without (1) funding and/or (2) an enforcement mechanism.

As it happens, the Health Department has an online algae tracker map. However…

“The website was never intended to provide the kind of outreach to the degree that the law now requires,” said [Angela Shambaugh, state aquatic biologist].

The volunteers who provide data for the map only check their locations once a week, she said, and algae blooms can form and then dissipate within hours. Plus, not every part of the lake is checked for cyanobacteria by a trained volunteer.

In essence, Shambaugh said that due to the nature of cyanobacteria and the size of the lake, real-time tracking isn’t feasible.

Hmm. You’d think this might have come up in committee hearings, the seemingly relevant fact that the fundamental idea of Act 86 is unworkable.

But what do I know, I’m not a legislator. Maybe there was good reason for passing a law that has no practical effect.

It’s not as though this law is alone in that respect. Indeed, our law books are full of statutes that are basically articles of faith. I don’t know how often I’ve been told that a certain activity might be illegal, but there’s no one who checks on it. If someone makes a complaint with substance, it’s likely to trigger an investigation; but otherwise, it’s as if there were no state troopers checking for speeders, or no checking of tax returns.

Oh, and here’s one more thing about Act 86 from a July article in the Burlington Free Press:

The law does not specify what happens if the state fails to comply.

So there’s a third factor that any good bill must include: consequences for failure to comply.

Something to ponder. And something to remember the next time our governor holds a well-publicized, well-populated signing ceremony:

What will this bill actually do? And how will it be enforced?

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4 thoughts on “When is a law not a law?

  1. Don

    I believe one of our great (and current, I believe) governors coined the phrase ‘nothing sandwich,’ didn’t he?

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Browning

    From my observation the Legislature often passes laws in an effort to solve problems, but the laws are often 1) not based on the realities of the situation, 2) without resources and staff for enforcement even if they are well designed. I think that this is because passing a law gets press coverage and makes it look as if something has been done, when it hasn’t really. The hard work of legislative oversight and providing resources for enforcement is neglected. Law making is a political process, and rightly so, but to my mind there should be a more substantive basis to legislation in many cases. But that would require actually facing economic and ecological realities, and I don’t see a great appetite for that. To my mind this kind of legislation by gesture instead of legislation by substance is part of why our on-going problems are never really solved.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    Reply

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