Opinion: Let’s have good reasons for good laws

The headline read “Governor tightens waterslide regulations” (Lawrence Journal World, April 25).

Caleb Schwab, the son of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, was killed last summer riding a waterslide at the Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City, Kan. Less than a year later the “anti-regulation” Kansas Legislature passed a bill regulating waterslides, and “anti-regulation” Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law. The vote was overwhelming, in the House 124-1; in the Senate, 35-2.

I’m glad we passed a public safety law; though, I don’t know why it was not already on the books. Maybe with good laws that child would be alive today. But does a child need to die before we recognize the need to create, or tighten, safety standards? It’s not like amusement park rides are something new.

The argument against regulation is that it distorts free markets; markets, the argument goes, naturally punish bad actors. The argument continues that government regulators are inept and that when the “nanny state” intervenes to protect us, it does the opposite by interfering with the market and in the process, “kills jobs” and punishes “job creators,” actually hurting far more than it helps.

The news article reported:

“The death of a colleague’s son spurred the governor in anti-regulation Kansas to toughen the state’s inspection requirements for amusement parks on Monday.

“[Bill sponsor, GOP Rep. John] Barker described Kansas’ current amusement park regulations [as] some of the loosest in the country.

“Brownback had promised to follow [Rep.] Schwab’s lead. Schwab didn’t comment on the bill until he gave an emotional speech in support of it last month in the House. He told fellow House members that he didn’t come to the Legislature to increase regulations and he wouldn’t hold it against anyone who didn’t vote for the bill.”

So, I’m trying to follow the logic here. The “regulations” need to be made tougher to “protect the next kid,” but the father of a child who unnecessarily died feels he needs to apologize for supporting tougher regulations?

Apparently 98.1 percent of our legislators recognize that regulations are necessary. Safe elevators, for example; should there be a law requiring elevator inspections? Or how about food? Should there be health standards for food? We’re not China, after all. How do you think cars got safer or Lake Erie got cleaned up? The answer: regulatory laws. Regulation created safe workplaces and stopped child labor. It wasn’t market-place innovation; it was government regulation.

What’s also clear is that everyone involved ­­­– Rep. Schwab, Brownback, everyone — understood that recognizing the need for safety regulation conflicts with Republican political orthodoxy. Big business doesn’t like it. So much so that Schwab felt obligated to tell his fellow legislators he would not “hold it against anyone” who voted against tightening regulation of amusement park rides, even though he might very reasonably believe the loosest laws in the country led to the death of his child.

And, only three actually voted “no,” then, as Brownback made clear he was “following [Rep.] Schwab’s lead,” regardless of his well-known stance against any kind of regulation.

So, it boils down to this: It seems that regulations are OK when something bad happens to — and here’s the critical point — not just anyone, but to someone who matters. Caleb Schwab mattered to the Kansas Legislature. Do you imagine this law would have been passed had Caleb not been a child of a legislator? Do you imagine the bill would pass with 98.1 percent of the vote, and be immediately rubber-stamped into law had the victim not been a member of the legislative family?

The problem is that if we pass laws in response to something bad happening to special people, what will happen when something bad happens to forgotten people? Lady Justice wears a blindfold because law should not be about “who” but about “what.” Someday the tragedy of this young boy will pass from the memories of legislators, and to those who did not know him this safety law may become just one more job-killing, nanny state regulation. What then? Does someone new need to die in every generation?

That’s not how good government works — fixing problems one at a time when someone special is involved. What happened to this family was awful and unnecessary. Had adequate safety regulation been in place, rather than the “loosest” in the country, Caleb might be alive today. Let’s make preventing unnecessary tragedy for all of us a goal of good government.

— William Skepnek is a longtime resident of Lawrence. He is a lawyer and taught Honors Western Civilization at the University of Kansas from 1991 to 2010.