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Bill Britt: Laws and unintended consequences

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

As a general rule any law written by the hand of man is burdened with unintended consequences. Only the ten commandments handed down by God to Moses are without unintended consequences. Naturally a trial lawyer or the ACLU would sue God over the big ten but many don’t know Him or believe that He exists.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that Alabama has laws that create problems beyond the imaginings of the lawmakers.

Lately, the Governor, Speaker of the House, the President Pro tem of the Senate have been beaten like a rented mule over the immigration law.

With close to 80 percent of Alabamians in favor of the immigration law, I would not encourage its opponents to hold their breath until the law is repealed.

The Governor and the legislature have more to consider than this one law, there is a need for unified attention on jobs, economic growth and the prosperity of our state.

Many times, lawmakers do too much lawmaking anyway and the unplanned challenges  come from a multitude of lawmaking without regard to the full extent of the policy. All laws will be used by the lawless as well as the lawful.

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One such law with unintended consequences can be illustrated in the RSA’s investments is hundreds of newspapers.  Now I have worked in that industry for over twenty years and could have told Dr. Bronner  that backing CNHI (Community News Holding Inc.) to the tune of one billion dollars—yes billion with a “B”—was a bad idea but he didn’t ask me.

Buying newspapers like the Cullman Times (a pretty good paper) the Saint Clair News-Aegis (Hum) and the now shuttered Leeds News was in my view akin to fiscal malpractice. Why? Not just because anyone with a modicum of investment foresight knew at the dawn of the new century that putting that kind on money in small and medium sizes newspapers was not a bright idea but that these small newspapers lived on a flawed business model that could not survive.

Not only has CNHI been bankrolled by RSA it is a tenant of the RSA moving its headquarters’ from Birmingham to RSA Dexter Tower Building in Montgomery.

Add to that, the city and Montgomery County offered $300,000 in incentives to pay moving costs for the company. The people of Alabama have a lot invested in a dying business.

Dr. Bronner is often referred to as the smartest man in the room. Whenever, I hear that statement referring to anyone, I ask, was anyone else there?

The handwriting has been hanging on the wall for years, as most small newspapers in Alabama  only prosper because of  government-sanctioned monopolies.

The big money that comes to these small newspaper is derived from “Legal Advertising,” this type of advertising consist of public notices from state, cities and counties governments, probates notices, tax rolls, voters list, foreclosures, and more.  These can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits for the newspaper and is mostly paid for with taxpayer dollars. By state law, only newspapers that meet certain federal standards for a second-class postal permit and other guidelines imposed by law may publish “Legal Notices.” There is usually only one such paper per county and because the law states that these notices must be run in a print newspaper this creates a monopoly. Therefore, the state, cities and counties are at the mercy of these paper who can charge whatever they please.

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To start a newspaper to compete with these monopolies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars., therefore there is seldom competition.  In recent years, there has been an urging by probate judges and others for the legislature to change the law allowing legal notices to be placed online under a low bid contract but these efforts have year after year been killed by the Alabama Press Association and the democratic legislature. It has been widely believed that the democrats cozy relationship with the editorial boards would keep their monopolies safe. It has been rumored that the republican led legislature might open up legal advertising for competition, however that remains to be seen. Lately, rumors have surfaced that a better deal is being offered by some in the legislature so that the newspapers can keep their monopoly.

This is all an example of a law of unintended consequences, when this law was passed there were many newspapers that could accept legal advertising so, there was competition. Of course, this argues the idea that most every law should have a sunset provision, while not perfect a sunset law could allow many bad laws to disappear in the dead of night.

The days of print newspapers is not dead but the bell tolls. Is it not time for the laws to catch up to the people or are local governments suppose to keep handing over taxpayer dollars to government sanctioned monopolies forever?

Surely, the free market would offer reduced cost to state and local government saving much needed revenue and even offering a  better delivery system via the internet?  Or will we watch as monopolies still hold their own thanks to lack of will. Are we the people to be  satisfied with unintended consequences? I think not.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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