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.
This 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?