Adding Up the Little Costs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things government should and shouldn’t get involved in. It’s a natural byproduct of the heated, often misguided debate we’re having about health insurance, and to a lesser extent health care, in this country right now. But I’m actually not as concerned about the big things, like the military, health care, and education.

Why don’t those line items that are counted by the hundreds of billions worry me so much? At least those hot-button issues generate public debate and interest from citizens and oversight groups. Yes, the sausage-making is still ugly, but at least there are a few cameras on the process.

This year, I’ve been increasingly concerned about the small things, the bills and regulations that carve out a few bucks here and a few bucks there from small businesses and citizens. Most of these bills aren’t passed with malicious intent, just thoughtlessly.

I reported on a couple of them, most notably the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool Safety Act, which mandated new pool drain covers on all public pools in response to the drowning of a young girl in a backyard whirlpool when the drain suction held her down. The need for the drain covers themselves could be debated (a handful of deaths over 25 years were attributed to the drains, and some of those were unsupervised children), but there’s little question that the implementation methods used in Wisconsin were ridiculously burdensome on local businesses.

The pool operators I’ve spoken to (most of whom are innkeepers) say the final tally is coming in at over $2,000 per pool, beyond even the $1,500 estimate I heard in July. That’s because Wisconsin mandated the pools be inspected by certified engineers before and after the drains were installed, piling up fees and installation costs for operators. In Door County alone the bill is going to cost businesses more than $400,000 before all is said and done. That’s money being pulled from business owners that are already limited to a sliver of a season to eke out a living.

For some reason, lawmakers from both parties and many in local government believe small business can support almost any cost. Higher inspection fees? No problem. New restaurant equipment requirements? No big deal, restaurants make huge profits on soda, don’t they? New fees from local government for tents or festival permits? Slap it on them, $50 isn’t much.

But all those fees, bills, and extra requirements add up when they come at business owners from every department and level of government.

The same kind of low-profile bill is in the works now with the federal Food Safety Enhancement Act, which could add substantial record-keeping and fees to food processing facilities and small farmers selling to wholesalers in the name of making the food supply safer. Such regulations ignore the fact that the major food contamination problems in recent years were all traced not to small farms, but to large corporate operations and imported food. One can safely assume that the representatives writing these bills and the FDA employees charged with implementing them are not spending much time talking to small farmers, organic growers, and family dairy operations, but I’m sure they’re getting plenty of friendly advice from companies like Monsanto, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland.

My guess is that when Congress passed the pool drain legislation, which few in the hotel industry knew about, nobody bothered to contact the people at the ground level who would have to deal with its ramifications and bear the financial burden of compliance. When the health department hands down new regulations for hotels or restaurants, they aren’t seeking much input from the industry on the best way to do it or what the costs will mean for owners and operators.

If we can argue and beat each other up over health care and come to some consenus on a plan, I can accept a little more government involvement in an area that the private sector has done little for or a service it can’t provide, like military defense and health care. But it’s the issues we don’t argue over, the ones our representatives don’t talk to us about, that scare me, and end up giving us $2,000 drain covers.