Editor’s Note: Trojan Horse Laws

If you can wrap something into a package that everyone wants, you have a greater chance of getting diverse, unrelated or controversial laws passed.

These are technically known as omnibus bills. I was reminded of their opaque, almost insidious nature while gathering information this week on the additional shared revenue that our local municipalities will receive under a new law created by our Republican-controlled Legislature and signed last month by our Democratic governor. 

That’s the part everyone wants – additional state aid flowing unrestricted into local governments to help fund local services – and the language for that new law commands the top part of Assembly Bill 245.

But then there is the “Other Provisions” section of the bill. Like fleas on a dog, these additional laws have little to nothing in common with the main law.

Here’s a summary of those “Other Provisions” that came with the shared-revenue package:

• Municipalities and counties may not discriminate when hiring or contracting based on race, color, ancestry, national origin or sexual orientation, unless it is required to receive federal aid;

• Public and private high schools participating in parental choice programs must collect statistics on violations of municipal disorderly conduct ordinances and certain crimes;

• Municipalities and counties must maintain law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services at least equivalent to those of the previous year;

• Counties and municipalities are now prohibited from holding an advisory referendum;

• The Department of Revenue must annually produce a comparative local government spending report and create a web page to display the information;

• A local health officer is now prohibited from issuing a mandate to close a business in order to control an outbreak or epidemic of communicable disease for longer than 14 days, unless the governing body approves the extension, but no approved extension can be longer than 14 days;

• Something that only a municipal treasurer would understand pertaining to “levy limit reduction for service transfers”;

• Provisions that weaken a local government’s ability to regulate nonmetallic quarries, including some prohibitions on limits for hours of operation or blasting;

• Provisions that affect the requirements for certification for emergency medical responders;

• Provisions related to ambulance staffing and rural ambulance service providers;

• Provisions that require the Department of Natural Resources to obtain support from local governments before taking certain steps with respect to activities or projects that will be funded under the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship 2000 program.

The Trojan Horse story is a far more colorful example of subversion introduced from the outside, but there are some pretty notable omnibus stories, a lot of those pertaining to the U.S. government – such as the Omnibus Act of Feb. 22, 1889, that, among many other provisions, admitted four new states to the United States: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington. 

Translated roughly from Latin, “omnibus” means “for all.” This is perhaps an apt use of the word, given the diversity of interests represented, but when the individual “Other Provisions” sail into law in the hold of the ship, I question whether it’s really good for all to subvert the democratic process in this way.