Idaho’s Regulatory Reset

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The big, exciting news in conservatism this week is the sunsetting of all of Idaho’s state regulations.

It’s a curious situation:  all of Idaho’s regulations sunset annually, but the Idaho State Legislature usually renews all of them as a matter of course.  This year, after a contentious legislative sessions, the legislature failed to reauthorize the regulations, so the entire body of state regulations expires on 1 July 2019.

Libertarians and small government conservatives are rejoicing, and this retirement is, indeed, revolutionary—it’s essentially an opportunity to “reset” the State’s regulatory regime, starting from scratch.  That will provide a great deal of opportunity to reinstate what worked in a regulatory sense, and to keep the rest of the chaff on the threshing floor.

The Mercatus Center’s piece on the Idaho situation also points to another welcome change:  the burden of proof now shifts to new regulations, rather than those seeking the repeal of old ones:

Governor Brad Little, sworn into office in January, already had a nascent red tape cutting effort underway, but the impending regulatory cliff creates some new dynamics. Previously, each rule the governor wanted cut would have had to be justified as a new rulemaking action; now, every regulation that agencies want to keep has to be justified. The burden of proof has switched.

An enduring frustration for legislators seeking to cut regulations must be the “Helen Lovejoy Effect“:  constant emotional appeals that cutting or revising this or that rule will breed dire consequences of catastrophic, apocalyptic proportions.  The Idaho legislature’s fortunate lapse in consensus has flipped the script.

Another item of note here:  it’s intriguingly paradoxical how legislative disagreement and gridlock ultimately brought about an opportunity for real reform.  While most legislative gridlock seldom ends with such dramatically positive results, this situation demonstrates the usefulness of hung legislatures:  sometimes, getting nothing done is preferable to getting something destructive done.

From the perspective of liberty, a government not taking action is often the better outcome.  That’s why conservatives were so rankled when President Obama promised to govern via executive fiat (“I have a pen and a phone”) on the grounds that congressional gridlock necessitated such drastic action.  The Framers of the Constitution baked inefficiency into the cake:  our national legislature is supposed to act slowly and deliberately.

Of course, the total repeal of all regulations is not all sunshine and unicorn hugs.  Contra hardcore libertarians, some regulations are useful, and their benefits far exceed their costs (although the opposite is often likelier).  The challenge for Idahoans is to figure out how to get back the useful regulations without reinstating the corrosive ones.  To quote the Mercatus Center again:

The main constraint now facing Idaho state agencies is time—they could use more of it. Regulators have just two months to decide which rules should stay and which should go. With more time, they might be able to tweak and modernize those regulations deemed necessary; instead, many rules may simply be readopted without changes.

So, in the haste to reinstate beneficent regulations, the detrimental ones could also get thrown back in.  If that happens, Idaho will have squandered a virtually unprecedented opportunity to remake its regulatory regime into a more streamlined, pro-liberty apparatus.

If, however, Idaho can pull it off, it will serve as a model to other States looking to streamline their regulatory agencies and services.  That’s a promising outcome, and one that all lovers of small- and limited-government should endorse.

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