Government Regs: One More Medicine No One Likes

You know something terrible has happened when government regulations get a grudging murmur of respect.

As the tragedy of the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Fla., keeps sinking in, former Florida state Rep. Julio Robaina noted to NBC News that legislation he sponsored in 2008 required condominium boards to conduct “reserve studies,” wherein experts periodically assess a building’s condition and estimate the cost of repairing any problems the study finds.

The law was repealed in 2010, on the impetus of builders and real estate brokers who argued that it was unnecessary government intrusion into an area condo boards could handle on their own.

We see how well that worked at Champlain Towers, an aging building whose condo board was required to do nothing and did just that.

Now the Florida Bar Association has formed a task force to determine whether Florida should consider stricter regulations on condos. The task force will discuss reserve studies and other issues, like whether the state itself should mandate regular inspections of older buildings.

The only things Florida now inspects are elevators and fire extinguishers — and the legislature voted in 2017 to cut back on fire inspections. That vote came right after a high-rise fire in London killed 72 people, however, so then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

That is not to say there’s any political trend in Florida toward condo regulations of any sort. Current Gov. Ron DeSantis has said they won’t even be discussed for a while and the chairman of the Bar Association task force, William Sklar, told the Miami Herald that “the idea is not to regulate or impose more laws on someone.”

That’s an interesting premise for a task force, but it’s a safe thing to say. Few public figures ever lost support, or votes, by saying they want to keep government out of our lives.

You can see the appeal in that position. No one wants a homeowner to endure years of red tape to get a simple project completed, or small business owners to spend half their time filling out government paperwork instead of, say, running their businesses.

Examples like that make anti-regulation rhetoric an easy sell. It’s the exception rather than the rule when that pendulum swings the other way.

We realized a couple of decades ago that some corporations had been making lots of money by poisoning our water, land and air. So we created regulations aimed at forcing them to stop.

A hundred years after the Civil War we finally got a Congress to acknowledge that Southern states shouldn’t be allowed to keep black people from voting. So we got the Voting Rights Act of 1965, slapping oversight regulations on states that had been ensuring their elections were all decided by white people.

Less dramatically, the government started requiring automobile passengers and drivers to wear seat belts and restricted the sales of cigarets to minors.

Most of us don’t even think about those kinds of regulations. We focus more on the ones that look like needless red tape, or a perceived infringement on our rights, or misguided attempts to control inherent human behavior.

These days they’re often framed as a cousin of the widely reviled “cancel culture.”

Accordingly, “government regulation” often surfaces as a partisan accusation, as in “They want to control your life and we want to let you live it.”

While more Republicans than Democrats have ridden the anti-regulation horse in recent years, the whole issue is historically nonpartisan. Former Florida Rep. Robaina, who wanted condo reserve studies, is a Republican. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of anti-regulators, was created by Republican President Richard Nixon. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was supported by a higher percentage of Congressional Republicans than Democrats.

Former President Donald Trump, who loosened many regulations and took major anti-regulatory actions like ending the ban on oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, at the same time proposed additional regulation in other areas, including the tech, financial and pharmaceutical industries.

Republican legislators in dozens of states have recently approved stricter regulations on voting.

Point being that a regulation one side promotes as protective may be denounced as toxic by the other.

In the case of Surfside and Florida, it wouldn’t be surprising if the initial horror over the condo collapse ultimately dwindles to a response closer to what happened after Florida’s Parkland school shooting.

Which is to say, not much.

And it won’t matter until it does.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”