Commentary: Rules Run Amok

By Beacon Staff

In an era of political lethargy, Verdell Jackson still gets ruffled. The state senator from Kalispell is, by label, a Republican. But many of his recent positions could also be called populous, libertarian, or simply beset with common sense.

He’s a lawmaker that opposes laws and sometimes that’s exactly what Montana needs. The most recent example is the very public fight in Whitefish over who should be allowed to display a barbershop pole. Apparently, only certified barbers can have one, not a Whitefish cosmetologist, even if she has trimmed flattops for 16 years.

Barber poles – those hypnotic cylinders that resemble psychedelic candy canes – are reserved for barbers who are properly licensed. That was the 2004 decision of the Montana Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists. Who knew such an obscure board wielded so much power? Jackson, in an interview last week, said that’s the point:

“This certainly is just one little example of what’s happening in terms of the hundreds of boards we’ve got,” Jackson, who may propose a bill to overturn the ruling, said. “They do these little regulations all the time below the radar screen.”

And that’s where they stay, with little accountability, until they come to some absurd consensus and the consequences of their decisions become public. Some appear minor, like rules regarding barber poles. Others are more serious, such as when agents with the state Department of Justice Gambling Control Division raided Ron Turner’s antique shop last winter.

The Whitefish man’s offense was displaying old gambling equipment at his store. The agents confiscated $77,000 worth of antiques and then threatened to destroy them. The Gambling Control Division, after all, takes no prisoners.

Jackson quickly proposed a law on the last day bills could be introduced during the 2007 Legislature that resulted in Turner getting his goods back. During discussion about the senator’s legislation that allows a person to own and display gambling devices more than 25 years old, the administrator for the gambling division asked, “Do you want these devices regulated or not?” A simple answer: “No, not by you.”

If anyone in this state were concerned about gambling then it wouldn’t require that gambling and liquor licenses be packaged together. Under these rules, it’s safe to assume that the Montana rule makers don’t want a man in his 60s to own an aging roulette machine, but encourage Montana residents to get punch drunk before they roll the dice, making it likely the inebriated gambler will lose more coin.

That may not be the state’s intention, but that’s how it looks. For one Whitefish Italian restaurant to earn the privilege of serving wine with pasta the owners had to enter a lottery.

“We control it in fine dining establishments, but sell it in a grocery store,” Jackson said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Few can make sense of it, Democrat or Republican. Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, sponsored the bill that created the 124 additional cabaret licenses because he saw that restaurants in the state’s largest cities were being hurt by the restrictions.

It’s a mystery how these restrictions were implemented in the first place, in a place like Montana, where if New Hampshire hadn’t trademarked the motto, “Live Free or Die,” we may have made it our own.

Serving alcohol should require a license, so should allowing gambling, and those who cut hair for a living should be able to prove they were trained to do so. But liberals and conservatives can certainly agree that well-intentioned laws in Montana are being abused by those who oversee them.

Thus this state looks less concerned about protecting our safety than regulating the masses for the benefit of a few.

“If we’re going to restrict someone’s freedom we better have a darn good reason for doing it,” Jackson said.

Instead, we’re arguing over candy-colored poles.