No-Look Legislation

The good that doesn't get done and the bad that does in Jeff City

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With so much time and anxiety in Jefferson City focused on stadium mania and the budget panic, the chances increase that a good bill will die of neglect, a bad one will be passed as a result of inattention and an imperfect bill just won't get the consideration it needs.

As an example of good legislation withering on the vine, take a look at Senate Bill 795, which would set up a modern communication system for law enforcement in the metropolitan area, a proposal few would argue against.

"Most of our police and fire departments use World War II technology," says Tim Fischesser, director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "There's new parts, but it's still that old walkie-talkie type with limited wavelength and limited communication ability. We're trying to set up a modern communication system where the city, the county, the airport and the surrounding counties could all talk to each other by a flick of a switch at a dispatching center. We can't do that now."

Fischesser says that when the pope was in town three years ago, police had to borrow walkie-talkies from other areas so they could all talk on the same frequency. If passed, the bill would fix this problem, paying for a new system through user fees or a special tax, neither of which was the reason this legislation failed to pass last year.

Nor is it the reason it could fail this year.

"It should pass, but it's been caught up in all this other stuff," says Fischesser. "Last year, they just ran out of time. That's what happens when they spend a lot of time on other bills."

One bill that legislators apparently haven't spent enough time on is SB 926, because it still has a chance of passing. The bill would protect auto dealers from liability for selling a damaged car as long as it has an "as is" warranty.

Another part of the bill would move the licensing and regulation of car dealers away from the state's Department of Revenue and place it under the Office of Economic Development. A nine-person commission, including eight auto dealers, would oversee the state's auto dealers.

According to consumer activist lawyer Bernard Brown, the bill is a nightmare on wheels. Brown finds the "as is" exemption particularly frightening.

"That means the dealers can get away with it even if they knew they were selling you a rebuilt wreck and didn't tell you. That's utterly undoing common-law fraud that's been around since the Bible," says Brown. "And nine people on a board and eight of them have to be dealers? You've got to be kidding me. Why not have eight bank robbers on a nine-bank-robber board regulating bank robbers?"

The Missouri Auto Dealers Association backs the bill. That hasn't dimmed its fortunes.

"I've never heard of a state that has passed a bill that has said stuff this bad," says Brown, who lives in Kansas City and is a board member of the National Association of Consumer Activists. "That dealers would regulate the dealers and that you could sell a car with an 'as is' warranty disclaimer, and that means you're insulated from any liability for fraud? I've never heard of a bill like that."

One bill that appears to make sense on the surface but has generated its share of legitimate concern is SB 1108, which would create a St. Louis Regional Taxicab Commission. The Regional Chamber and Growth Association and other tourist-oriented types back the bill, but smaller cab companies in the city fear that a regional commission would increase fees and end up costing them customers.

City riders would also end up paying more, say the small cabbies.

For once, this is a cross-jurisdictional problem in which the city appears to have its act together better than the county, says Harry Haggard, president of Allen Cab, who used to oversee cabs when he worked for the city streets department.

Haggard maintains that the city's 30-page cab ordinance manages city taxis just fine.

"When they issued the permits for the airport, the rates went up 35 percent. We don't feel that our riding public in the city -- the neighborhood people and those who work in the city -- should have to pay for something we already have," says Haggard. "We already have a taxicab ordinance that covers just about anything we need."

He's working against the regional cab commission bill, claiming it's trying to fix something that's not broke in the city.

"The problems are in the county; if they adopted the city's ordinance, they wouldn't have their problems. They issued too many permits at the airport," says Haggard. "The county is trying to bail out of it and stick everybody with this commission."

Bills such as this haven't made it onto the media's radar screen. Nor has the "as-is" warranty bill pushed by the auto dealers, although the Kansas City Star published an editorial against it.

Such scrutiny stalled legislation backed by the auto dealers last year, says Brown. But this year, there has been a far dimmer media spotlight on the Missouri Capitol, he says, with almost all the coverage from this session devoted to the Cardinals' stadium and the budget.

But there's always hope, however twisted.

"With the Senate being Republican and the House being Democrat, if they really get on each other's nerves and slow down each other's bills, maybe not much will happen," says Fischesser.

The old joke goes that the best place to die is Jefferson City, because down there you're never really dead. Any good -- or bad -- bill can be resurrected.

Think about that the next time you buy a used car.

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