Every once in a while you hear about your government doing something — or trying to do something — that makes you happy to pay your taxes.
That’s the way I felt last week when I read the newspaper report of the state Assembly considering a bill that would make it against the law to drive a motor vehicle while simultaneously taking a call on a hand-held cell phone or fiddling with your radio or CD player, putting on make-up, reading the newspaper, wolfing down your bagel and coffee, or tending to the wolfhound in the backseat.
If the legislation becomes law (a similar bill limited only to the use of hand-held cell phones already has passed in the state Senate), then the police blotter pages will have references to DWD along with DWI — driving while distracted will be against the law as surely as driving while intoxicated, though with lesser penalties.
Of course, whenever you hear anyone praising legislation at the state level, you can bet that they have some personal axe to grind. I have two:
No. 1. While I am as much opposed to reckless cell phone use as anyone else, I always remained silent on the subject because I was as much an offender as anyone. But then three weeks ago I stumbled into Brookstone at MarketFair and found a hands-free cell phone cradle that plugs into the cigaret lighter. It was just $30 and it works — it even turns the phone on automatically when you start the car.
Since I hardly ever eat in the car, and since the new law would be one more argument I could use when my kids start fighting in the back seat, I am more in favor of it than ever.
No. 2. My other axe dates back to early this year, when I began to notice the constant stream of faxes coming into our office from the state legislators. In the past I have always taken these faxes, crumpled them up, and used them to play a little office basketball as I walked past the nearest trash can. But for some reason one caught my eye that did not make me happy to pay my taxes.
It was a fax from the Assembly Democrats and it announced that the Assembly’s state government committee had released a measure — sponsored by William D. Payne, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Herb Conaway — that declared February to be "Black History Month" in New Jersey. Now this seemed strange: February has been Black History Month for as long as this paper has been in business and our February issues have been filled with noteworthy cultural events celebrating the accomplishments and remembering the struggles of the African-American community.
Even stranger was that the press release was dated February 13, and it specifically declared February, 2003, as Black History Month. The release noted that the measure still had to go to the Assembly Speaker, who would determine "if and when to post it for a floor vote." What if it took more than 15 days to accomplish that, I wondered. The month would be over and presumably they would have to start all over again the next year.
So I began to collect those faxes that come unrelentingly into our office. Black History Month, relatively speaking, got short shrift from our legislators. The environment was the subject of many more pieces of legislation. One such measure would have allocated $11 million in funding for open space acquisition (the land was located in part in the legislative district of the bill’s sponsors, Watson Coleman and Reed Gusciora).
You might applaud the determination of your elected officials in going after those funds, but if you read beyond the headline of the press release you discover that the money would be appropriated from not the highway fund or the state legislators’ retirement fund or expense allowance but rather from the Garden State Green Acres Preservation Trust Fund.
And so it went. My stack of faxes began to cram an in-box I had allotted to them: Proposed legislation to designate March as Women’s History Month (dated March 3), to protect homeowners from toxic mold, to increase penalties for home burglaries, to protect children from dangerous school bus drivers, to study the role of the Civil Air Patrol in the state’s homeland security plans, to encourage humane veal rearing practices, to ensure warrant checks of inmates awaiting release from prison, to create a "drug cost reduction study" commission, to implement a color-coding system to prevent incorrect medical gases to be given to hospital patients, and — last but not least in my pile — a bill to require all police, campus police, and sheriff’s officers to undergo psychological testing before employment and every five years thereafter.
Operating on the premise that you should not say anything about someone unless you can say something nice, I didn’t know what to do with all this onslaught of government protectionism. Then I saw that news about the DWD offense: Thanks again, legislators, for all your good work.