Making laws from stories: Anecdotes often motivate legislators to write bills

The State House in Augusta.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House in Augusta.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal
Posted July 07, 2013, at 6:35 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If you want to drink a pint of Guinness before 9 a.m. on a Sunday when it’s St. Patrick’s Day in Maine you can now, thanks largely to a good story.

One tavern owner — a longtime Republican — suggested the idea to Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, last winter, and just in the nick o’ time a bill extending drinking hours to the wee hour of 6 a.m. when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday was signed into law by Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

The measure ended up benefiting bars all around Maine, but the change was suggested mainly to preserve a long-standing tradition at a single pub in Saco, Hobbins said while promoting the bill.

The law change was just one in a host of bills — some passed into law, some not — offered up in 2013 that were based largely on a story or two or even a tall tale told to a lawmaker.

“A good story always beats the facts,” said George Smith, a Maine outdoors writer and former longtime executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “You try to have some factual basis, but a good story is a lot better than somebody droning through a long list of complex facts, (and soon) the legislators are all heading down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.”

Smith, who has done his share of lobbying over the years, said making law by anecdote in Maine is nothing new.

“We get a lot of it in hunting and fishing,” Smith said. “Somebody will have one story and it will result in a bill and then you will be starting to change things. It’s constant.”

Anecdotes often provide easy ways to illustrate an issue.

“The problem I think is partly driven by the fact that many of these issues are actually quite complex, ” Smith said. “Legislators don’t have the background information they need or the time to whip through complex issues, so it’s easy to grab a story, make a slight change in the law, add something here and there, without dealing with anything that’s complex and presents a lot of factual information.”

A law based on an anecdote isn’t always bad public policy, Smith said. But sometimes it is, and ends up being reversed later.

That was a case with a 1995 law requiring the closing of fish ladders on the St. Croix River for the passage of alewives.

The fish, important to American Indians, were believed, without any basis in fact, to be undermining a popular bass fishery. For nearly two decades, the native species was kept out of its native habitat, and the ecosystem of the river suffered. Lawmakers overturned that law this session and alewives were allowed to return to the river, Smith said.

An early advocate for the 1995 closure, Smith said he and many other outdoor advocates came to realize alewives had nothing to do with a declining bass fishery in a lake upstream. But even after that sentiment was shared with the Legislature, it took years to overturn, Smith said.

Smith said this year a law dealing with paying special agents to hunt coyotes in a handful of specific deer yards in northern Maine was unfunded, even though lawmakers were never fully informed whether the effort was having a positive impact on deer populations or not. He said the effort cost the state about $45,000, with the per-coyote cost about $240.

“They don’t have any information to tell us whether it did any good in those particular yards,” Smith said.

Other laws dealing with guns, student debt forgiveness and even subscription sales online all came forward via anecdote in 2013.

Mal Leary, a longtime political reporter and the bureau chief of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Capitol Connection, said that while some people might believe anecdotal lawmaking occurred more in 2013 than in past years, even those observations are based largely on an anecdote.

Leary said there’s little doubt that every lawmaking session sees anecdotes creep into the debate on bills and that often bills that gain the public’s attention are ones that include good stories about hardship or injustice.

A State House reporter since 1975, Leary said anecdotal bills are a just as important part of Democracy as the bills that are fact-based. “The reality is, some lawmaker ultimately has to decide an issue is important enough to put a bill in.”

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said every lawmaking session is peppered with proposed legislation based on anecdotes.

The bills often affect only a small number of people or even a single town.

“It’s pretty common that they arise from a unique situation, and since they affect so few people, they tend not to get a lot of attention,” Melcher said, noting the more high-profile anecdotal bills tend to become law only when they cut across traditional party lines.

Examples in the latest session include one that would help veterans get professional licenses reissued more quickly when they lapse during a tour of duty. Such licenses include professions such as electricians and nurses. That bill was based on the personal experience of a returning veteran from Afghanistan.

Another bill, which prevented the public from seeing information on concealed handgun permits, resulted from fear of what might happen to permit holders if the records were left open.

State police and others testified before the Legislature that there were no known instances of any trouble arising from that information being public, but the measure still moved forward.

A third bill required public schools to allow recruiters from the military to visit schools in uniform. While there were no specific cases brought up where schools had denied recruiters in uniform access, the bill went through with broad bipartisan support.

“The other thing that helped some of these bills was being good symbolic politics,” Melcher said. “Even if the recruiter issues were not widespread, they are still the sort of symbolic issue that stands for a broader issue or attitude — what political scientists call a ‘condensation symbol.’”

Melcher also noted that laws based on anecdotes often conflict with certain political ideals.

“Most legislators would be disinclined to vote against the interests of the military and many would feel unpatriotic if they did,” Melcher said. “One irony is that some of the conservatives who voted for the recruiter bill are some of the same ones who are usually strong voices for local, not state, control.”

He said the concealed handgun permit issue was one that highlights how the “media’s frame” on an issue can be much different from the public’s perspective on the same issue.

“The Maine media consistently saw it as a Freedom of Information issue, and as in most cases where there is a case of government restricting access, saw it as a threat to them,” Melcher said. “There were a number of columns written from that perspective and editorials as well; they didn’t seem to grasp that very few outside the media saw it that way.”

And while LePage signed some anecdotal bills into law, such as the St. Patrick’s Day Sunday drinking bill into law — likely because it had potentially broad-reaching ramifications beyond the one tavern in Saco — other such bills he vetoed, noting the bills were aimed at helping a single person or correcting a single instance of perceived injustice.

One of the bills LePage vetoed sought to allow a specific doctor to benefit from a student loan repayment program offered by the Finance Authority of Maine by retroactively changing the rules for eligibility.

LePage agreed the doctor, a psychiatrist who treats those with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder, was serving a critically underserved population, but the doctor’s disciplines of study were not covered under the FAME rules for loan forgiveness.

Despite being a good story, the anecdote didn’t turn into law.

“Changing the rules of entire programs to benefit a specific individual is not something the Legislature should undertake lightly,” LePage wrote in his veto message. If the measure had offered structural change to underlying inequities in the program, LePage said he would have more understanding. “Instead, this bill provides an individual with thousands of dollars of direct benefit.”

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/07/07/politics/making-laws-from-stories-anecdotes-often-motivate-legislators-to-write-bills/ printed on December 18, 2014