When The Chickens Come Home

by Phil Anderson

Wisconsin Public Radio recently reported that the Walker administration is not enforcing fire safety codes. The laws requiring fire suppression sprinklers in apartment buildings are in conflict with another anti-regulation law passed by the Walker wrecking crew. 
As I have written in the past, there are consequences to the destructive, mean spirited, short sighted, ideologically driven agendas of the radical Republicans now in charge of Wisconsin and the nation. The consequences of their senseless actions frequently hurt people. Refusing to enforce basic fire safety for ideological reasons should alarm us all.  

Fire suppression sprinkler systems are a cost effective, proven way to improve fire safety. 
Quoted in several news reports, Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing has said legislators need to address this issue. Weakening the fire code is “disheartening” because “the single most important component of [fire safety] is a sprinkler system.”
Currently the Wisconsin fire code requires sprinklers be installed into new apartment buildings with between 3 and 20 units. The rule was established by the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services seven years ago. It is more restrictive than a state law approved in 2011 which only requires sprinklers in buildings with more than 20 units. 

In 2011 the radical  Republicans passed Wisconsin Act 21 which says state agencies can’t create regulations that are more restrictive than state law. This created the conflict between the two laws. Rather than resolve that conflict in the favor of public safety, Walker is choosing ideological purity. The dismantling of “regulations” is apparently more important to him than people’s safety.

Wisconsin Act 21 vests the Governor’s office with the  power to enact, amend, or repeal administrative rules. Prior to Act 21, agencies had rule making authority which was subject to legislative oversight. With Act 21 the Legislature ceded its authority to the Governor. So Walker has the power to make an exception with the fire codes. Claiming there is a conflict that prevents their enforcement is a purely political act intended to allow the gutting of “regulations” that impact on favored business interests.  

The Wisconsin Builders Association has opposed the sprinkler rule because it increases construction costs. Apparently they do not care about the safety of people either. But aside from that, their opposition makes no sense from a business perspective. If everyone must meet reasonable, sensible requirements to install sprinklers this would INCREASE work for the contractors in the builders association. It would provide them with new profit generating  opportunities. It should be obvious that sprinklers would help prevent losses and lower insurance costs for the apartment building owners. The often repeated canard that government regulations hurt business and the economy is simply not true. But ideology often blinds business as well as political leaders.

Controversy over the proper role of government in regulating business is as old as the nation. Conservatives of both parties have always opposed restrictions on “freedom” of business to make money without regard to the health, safety, honesty, environmental damage, or the consequences for consumers and the public. So is should not be surprising that today’s anti-government ideologues take every opportunity to hamstring or eliminate needed controls.

There are many examples of this short sighted philosophy putting profits before the public good. When the consequences come home to roost, taxpayers often pay the price. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a good example. The radical Republicans passed a state law allowing the Governor to appoint “emergency managers” to oversee city governments with financial difficulties. The managers had dictatorial powers and could overrule elected local officials. In Flint the “manager” decided to “save money” by changing the water source form the Detroit public system to the the polluted river. The result was a financial and  public health disaster.   

The economic meltdown in 2008 is another example. The repeal of laws regulating commercial banks (Glass-Steagall legislation of 1933) led directly to the financial crisis. The crisis cost investors, taxpayers, pension funds, and most of us trillions.  
Opposition to environmental protection is another area where Republican ideology hurts people and cost taxpayers more in the long run. Invasive species in the Great Lakes, drinking water contamination, and depletion of ground water from high capacity wells are just a few of the problems from lack of effective regulation in Wisconsin.     

Our health care system is another. The mess we have (highest costs in the world, many uninsured, and poor health outcomes by many measures, etc.) is the result of the free market, profit driven system. Yet the radical Republican wrecking crew insist deregulation and the free market are the answer. 
This blind opposition to any social controls on business is reflected in Trump’s executive order to repeal two “regulations” for every new one created. He promised to reduce regulation by 75% and his administration is quietly dismantling many long established, necessary laws to protect consumers, workers, and the environment. This effort is not based on any rational review of the need for regulations, their effectiveness, or any cost-benefit analysis. No thought has been given to the consequences of repeal. It is purely a political, ideological decision. It is hard to think of a more destructive, irrational way to conduct public policy.

Guided by the same philosophy, rather than actual analysis, Walker has decreed that 75% of Wisconsin’ public forests must be available for logging. DNR scientists have been laid off.   Local control on many issues has been severely limited. Workers’ rights have been decimated. Mining laws have been re-written to favor one company (which failed to come to Wisconsin). The state’s legal system is being changed to benefit one company (Foxconn). And soon people will be penalized for using hybrid and electric cars. 

Walker’s fire sprinkler foolishness is a disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later people will be hurt or killed by the radical right’s anti-regulation mania. Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost.