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Advocacy Angle: On anecdotes and bad policy outcomes 

by League Director of Public Affairs Scott Mooneyham

It should come as no surprise that state legislators, made aware of a problem faced by a constituent, would want to offer a solution. If someone finds that their town was regulating, say, loud noises in a manner that he or she viewed as unfair, and went to their state senator of state representative about  the problem, that elected officials might assume that the issue is endemic of a larger statewide problem. Of course, quite often it isn’t. 

As Rep. Chuck McGrady notes in this issue’s legislative profile (A Path Less Traveled, pp. 23-27), there is an impulse, particularly among new legislators, to sometimes want to respond to a single, poor  decision in one locality by passing a law. (McGrady’s response: “Well, no, just because a mistake got made doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed here.”) 

In legislative parlance, these kinds of decisions are sometimes referred to as “legislating by anecdote.”  The implication of the phrase is that making a single occurrence of an event the basis for legislation can lead to bad public policy, and that sound public policy is typically based on addressing systemic, broad societal problems and issues. Sometimes those two things can merge, and one example that has become a legislator’s cause celebre is part of a bigger trend. More often, that is not the case. 

Once a statewide bill is filed, though, dissuading a legislator that it may not be the best approach is never easy. One thing to keep in mind: Sometimes statewide legislation that comes about as a result of a single local complaint can put state legislators into some strange ideological waters, places where their own broader political beliefs don’t line up very well with specific actions called for in that bill. 

Last year’s provision in the Senate’s proposed budget that could have led to the elimination of some municipal service districts is an interesting example. The provision was eventually turned into a less onerous oversight change and a legislative study (now underway). As originally composed, it would have allowed 15 percent of registered voters living within an MSD to petition to hold a referendum on the future of the special taxing district. A successful petition would allow a majority of registered voters in the district to do away with the district. 

The provision was substantially altered because the League and other advocates made the case that these districts, mostly in downtowns, were largely created at the behest of business owners, for the purpose of providing additional levels of city services, and that business owners living outside the districts would be excluded from any vote. 

As the conversation continues, it is worth considering that these types of districts and the philosophy behind them fall squarely in line with the thinking of many conservative analysts who see user fees and consumption taxes as a fairer means of directing the payment of government-provided services to the end user. MSDs do that by having the beneficiaries of the extra services – whether additional security, garbage collection or festival marketing – pay a slightly higher property tax. 

Conservative fiscal philosophy should see that as a better approach than having a broader swath of taxpayers, some of whom may never benefit from those services, pay the freight. 

Good public policy typically grows out of the experiences of the many, and rarely the few. As League members make the case for the broad priorities of cities and towns, that basis for sound policy is always good to remember and good to use as an occasional reminder.