Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere

I watched most of the public testimony regarding CB17-2015, the Nutritional Standards bill (at least until 10:00 pm).  Less than 12 hours later, the "who had more" debate has already begun, but this is really besides the point.  Public testimony serves two purposes - 1) Educate the Council on facts not previously considered, and 2) Persuade them to believe your position represents the public will.  Conceding my bias as a supporter of the Nutritional Standards bill, I think both sides did a strong job on number 1, but that PATH and the Horizon Foundation took home number 2.

As I've stated previously, there is plenty of room for debate on this bill.  You can believe the underlying purpose of the bill (i.e., the 21st Century diet causes preventable diseases), while being uncomfortable with the proposed remedy.  In fact, I think that is a fair position to hold on any number of public concerns, from speed cameras to bike helmet laws.  But what bothers me is when the debate becomes insincere.  When there is feigned confusion over definitions, slippery slope hypotheticals, or ad hominid attacks.

Lest there be any confusion as to whether something less restrictive than a "ban" would meet the County Executive's concerns subsequent to his repeal of the "Sugary Drinks" Executive Order, it is apparent that not only does the County Executive oppose this bill, but his office manufactured many of the witnesses who testified against the bill last night.  From the Howard County Republican Club newsletter:
The county executive's office will have fiscal impact numbers on the county and other data; they are also working on getting a member of the chamber to testify and have the vending machine lobbying group to testify. 
In that context, the fiscal note on this bill should certainly be viewed with skepticism.

Interestingly enough, one of the numbers cited by Councilman Greg Fox from the fiscal impact statement was that the requirement to provide water at County events would cost the County $1 million a year.  The water provision ended up being a surprising focus of bill opponents throughout the night.  There was even testimony that "free water" would draw people from outside the County to Howard County events.

Now I don't mean to alarm anyone, and I hope people in Baltimore and Anne Arundel will stay in their seats, but...there's free water at Centennial Lake right now!  I had free water at the George Howard Building on Thursday!  In fact, you can fairly assume that there is free water at every single building owned by the County, which makes it truly puzzling that any requirement to make water available (even if you presume, as bill opponents do, that the water must be subsidized by the County) would have any fiscal impact at all.  By the language of this bill, "the water fountain is down the hall to your right" would meet the requirements of water being "free upon request" to County guests.

As I've said before, I believe this bill is an innovative way to use the County's position as a market participant to make good policy.  I can even see circumstances where Libertarian Republicans would argue that this is precisely how the government can and should influence public behavior as opposed to making rules that expand outside public buildings and events.  Making a big deal out of free water speaks more to the merit of the opposition than the merit of the bill.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love.

ADDENDUM:  My friend Ian Kennedy offered some additional insight on the blog's Facebook page:
Also worth noting that the actual estimate of cost for providing water at all county special events is actually $388,000, not including "labor, transportation, cooling, or trash removal costs". This number was misrepresented last night. (If I had to guess I'd say they arrived at the number by multiplying the number of people who attend county events by $1, a rough estimate for the cost of a bottle of water.)  
So they assumed, as did those in opposition, that the bill requires the county to hand out bottles of Deer Park upon request, which as you note is an inaccurate reading of the bill. It also hints at an irresponsible mindset: that the County would assume providing water meant providing it in the most costly and wasteful way. Howard County Government already owns and uses a "water buffalo" for distributing drinking water in certain situations, and it is odd that it wouldn't already use this water buffalo at events like Wine in the Woods and the 4th of July when proper hydration for attendees is a legitimate health and safety concern.  
The full fiscal note for the bill is "conservatively" estimated at $628,000, including the Department of Corrections' "grave" concerns, which amount to $20,000 in expenses.