The Independent's recent article concerning new legislation for statewide regulation of massage therapists ("Unhappy ending," cover story, Jan. 1), was appropriately titled. The result of this law should have been clearly foreseeable to every legislator and elected official who called for and supported the bill. It is a great object lesson for the public about asking government to solve any problem.
First of all, what was the problem? Locally, the issue was that unregulated "massage parlors" in unincorporated areas of El Paso County were suspected of prostitution and drug-related activities. No one was complaining about having received a bad massage from a poorly trained therapist. Instead, neighborhood groups in the county rightfully were complaining and calling for action to stop the activities in their neighborhoods, which were a nuisance at the very least. The need was for county officials to have the ability to conduct periodic and unannounced inspections of these establishments.
Colorado Springs, as a home-rule city, already had the power and long ago enacted massage therapy regulations allowing periodic code and law enforcement inspection to ensure activities were legitimate and safe. This city regulation has operated effectively and satisfactorily for some time so effectively, in fact, that the illegitimate establishments had moved to the county.
Why hadn't El Paso County done likewise? In Colorado, counties have limited powers and can only regulate on those subjects they are empowered to by state statute. Massage therapy is not one of them. But the solution was simple enough: Enact legislation consisting of about four lines empowering counties to regulate these businesses in the same manner Colorado Springs was already doing.
What happened? Once the TV story ran, hysteria reigned and in no time at all, blame was shifted to the Legislature because the county had no power to do anything about this. The Legislature had to "do something," and since the big-government, regulation-minded Democrats are in control, they got to decide how the problem would be solved. (For the record, this limited-government, local-control-minded Republican proposed the simple, alternative solution that was rejected out of hand by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle.)
The result was that instead of simply authorizing county governments to regulate these businesses and make periodic inspections, Democratic Rep. Buffie McFadyen of Pueblo West and Democratic Sen. Chris Romer of Denver introduced and passed a 20-page bill regulating massage therapists with regulations less stringent than those already in place in Colorado Springs, depriving our own community of its very effective, existing program to combat prostitution and drugs. As originally introduced, the Romer-McFadyen bill did not even give local governments the right to make their own inspections the very thing that was actually needed in El Paso County. That provision had to be added by amendment.
I opposed the bill because, as the Independent reported, it would not solve the crime problem and would actually harm legitimate massage therapists and hamper local authorities trying to get control of unlicensed massage parlors. I advocated for empowering local government without creating a new regulatory bureaucracy. Even as I opposed the bill as wrong-headed and ill-conceived, Rep. McFadyen gave me a near-personal scolding and essentially accused me of lacking concern about public safety and my community.
At the same time, the massage therapists' lobby actively supported the bill despite the fact that many would be hurt by its passage. The industry lobbyists were joined, of course, by the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, whose regulators would be further empowered at the expense of local government.
As is often, if not invariably, the case when elected officials, bureaucrats and lobbyists rush to shift blame, "do good" and take credit, more harm than good was done. The object lesson, particularly in this time as everyone seems to be asking government to solve our problems: Be careful what you ask for and who you ask to do it for you. Otherwise, you, too, may get an "unhappy ending."
Bob Gardner, a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, represents southwestern Colorado Springs and El Paso County, and northeastern Fremont County.