How to Get Dumb, Obsolete Laws Off the Books


How to Get Dumb, Obsolete Laws Off the Books

Sunset provisions create opportunity to modify or eliminate laws

It’s an unfortunate truth that, once a law is passed, it is rarely removed from the books. Long after the legislative fad has passed, the technology has changed or society has simply moved on, the laws linger.

Every city in Orange County has a municipal code as thick as a phone book, full of obscure laws that are ineffective, have unintended negative consequences and are no longer necessary (if they ever were to begin with).

For example, Costa Mesa and Irvine have banned leaning bikes against trees or buildings in public places. In Irvine, it is illegal for taxi drivers to smoke in their cabs even when they are alone in their vehicles. Orange County has a ban against sleeping in your car. And more than 50 California cities have bans on where you can sit or rest in public.

Some of these bans are targeted at, and disproportionately impact, the homeless. In some cases, convictions for dumb laws may render homeless people ineligible for social services.

In other cases, dumb laws prevent entrepreneurs from pursuing their dreams and boosting the economy. For example, California banned motorized skateboards in the 1970s over concerns that gas-powered skateboards created heavy air and noise pollution. Today, high-tech skateboards are environmentally friendly, 100 percent electric and produce zero tailpipe emissions.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, the Assembly Republican leader, has been working on a bill to legalize electric skateboards. Even though the bill has no political opposition, the snail’s pace of the legislative process means the ban is still in place and continues to stifle the growth of an innovative industry.

More often than not, though, elected officials are too busy making new laws to spend time getting rid of the obsolete ones already on the books. How often do you think city councils go back to measure whether or not the laws they passed five years ago are actually working as they expected? Rarely, if ever.

One solution is to put a sunset provision into almost every new law, meaning the law expires after a set period of time, say five years, unless elected officials vote to extend it. If the law is still useful and working as intended, it can be quickly and easily renewed. If things have changed, the sunset review creates an opportunity to modify or eliminate the law.

Perhaps the best-known sunset effort takes place at the state level in Texas. Each year the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission thoroughly reviews 20 to 30 state agencies. “Since Sunset’s inception in 1977, 79 agencies have been abolished, including 37 agencies that were completely abolished,” the commission’s website reports. “Every dollar spent on the Sunset process has earned the State approximately $25 in return.”

Orange County should create a commission to review its existing laws. The organization would determine if laws are still relevant, do a benefit-cost analysis of laws for which circumstances have changed significantly, and recommend changing or eliminating laws.

When the San Diego created “Regulatory Relief Days” in the early 1990s, council members and citizen volunteers reviewed regulations and changed or eliminated many. For example, they changed a rule that required warehouses to use what had become obsolete fire prevention technology. Simply updating the fire code saved many warehouses $150,000 or more.

Rapid changes in outlooks, lifestyles, technology and society mean that some laws that may have made sense years or decades ago no longer serve us well. Obsolete laws help make harmless acts criminal and keep power in the hands of the authorities. It’s time for Orange County and its city governments to review their laws.

Adrian Moore is vice president of research at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.