What’s the Price?

Democratic legislators quarreled with Jim Hunt. Republican legislators quarreled with Pat McCrory. It’s one of the oldest feuds: Legislators battling Governors.  It can even end up in court: When Republican legislators took control of the new Coal Ash Commission away from Governor McCrory he sued.

Whether they’re fighting over patronage, appointments, or regulations, whenever legislators and governors bump heads there’re fireworks.

More often than not, when the legislature passes a law, it’s a broad policy statement – followed by instructions to a state department (controlled by the Governor) to devise regulations to implement the policy.

Generally, I’m not a fan of government regulations. But when they’re unavoidable the goal is simple: To make the rules clear, fair, and consistent with (what lawyers call) the intent of the law.

However, no system devised by man is perfect. Especially politics. Sometimes state agencies (or Governors) don’t like a new law. They dig in their heels and resist. They even, at times, act as if the law doesn’t exist. And the result can be a nightmare. Because when the rules are not clear a citizen will suddenly find himself – or herself – face to face with a bureaucrat who, basically, says, “The law means what I say it means” – and that’s not the answer any citizen deserves in a society based on the rule of law.

Here’s one small example: Twenty years ago, in 1997, the General Assembly told the State Board of Elections, in statute, to make rules clarifying which campaign contributions and expenditures are legal and which are illegal. That wasn’t an earthshaking reform. It didn’t affect many people – only candidates for office. However, through four governors – one Republican and three Democrats – the Elections Board did nothing. It passed no rules defining which expenditures are proper and which are not.

What harm is done by these kinds of obtuse regulations? Part of our national debate over the past year has been about the fact that we are a constitutional democracy where there is no special, privileged class of people who are above the law. In our Democracy, everyone plays by the same rules. Everyone caught on the highway driving 80 in a 65 pays the same price.

But vague regulations, or no regulations, lead straight to loopholes that one group can use to its advantage.

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