Repealing Michigan’s Rat Bounty: A Cautionary Tale

When I served in the Michigan State Senate from 1999 to 2002, I led the Senate Law Revision Task Force to repeal arcane laws. Working with my colleagues Senator Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Ann Arbor) and Senator Mike Goschka (R-Saginaw), we set forth the public policy reasons that made our work necessary in a December 1999 report:

1.) Michigan residents must be free from the threat of the state arbitrarily enforcing arcane and/or irrelevant laws; 2.) Residents must never be required to be aware of and abide by laws that no reasonable person could ever know were extant, let alone enforceable; and 3.) Governmental resources—especially precious law enforcement resources—should not be squandered perpetuating and/or imposing arcane and/or irrelevant laws upon residents.

Admittedly, for me there was also a partisan question to be divined: how could Republicans, who controlled the governor’s mansion and both state legislative chambers, ever reduce the size of government if they couldn’t even rescind obsolete laws?

Fortunately, with the aid of Governor John Engler and his administration, the diligence of my legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the impish genius of Richard D. McLellan, and the invaluable input of Michiganders from all walks of life, the Senate Law Revision Task Force repealed a host of state laws deemed “clearly arcane or irrelevant to life in modern Michigan.”

For my part, I introduced Senate Bill 1128 to repeal Public Act 50 of 1915 (MCL 433.251-433.253)—its less dignified colloquial moniker was “the Rat Bounty”:

Any person who kills a black, brown, grey, or Norway rat shall be entitled to receive ten (. 10) cents for each head of a rat that is presented to the city, township, or village clerk. The law also requires that a person seeking the bounty to provide a bundle of not less than five (5) rat heads. The clerk is then required to give the bounty hunter a certificate indicating the amount of the bounty’ and burn the rat heads.

The task force’s rationale for repeal was sound:

Health departments, household poisons, and exterminators seem to have greatly reduced the need for this law. While some communities have recently experienced rat problems, none have suggested or encouraged the use of this law. The Law Revision Task Force recommends—and Livonia City Clerk Joan McCotter urges—repeal.

Michigan and my mother got their wish and the rat bounty was repealed.

Flash forward to the new millennium: while the rectitude of repealing the two-cent bounty on slaughtered English Sparrows remains, recent events in Michigan, America, and the world have caused some reconsideration of the sagacity of repealing the rat bounty.

As President Trump and U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) dispute over the rat problem in the latter’s Baltimore district; New York, Los Angeles, and Paris are all experiencing alarming rates of rat infestation. Some medical experts have warned of a possible recrudescence of Bubonic plague and other diseases borne by rats; and, closer to my home, in 2013 St. Clair Shores, Michigan, considered—and ultimately rejected—adopting a municipal rat bounty of $5 a carcass.

This current advance of the pestilential rodents reinforces the wisdom of legislators who recognize that the more things change, the more they may stay the same—or can become worse, due to short-sighted, unsound laws.

As the instance in St. Clair Shores evinces, the reasons for the Senate Law Revision Task Force’s call to repeal the rat bounty remain sound, specifically that there are better, more efficacious means to curb the city’s rodent problem than incentivizing a vigilante army of rat hunters who could prove a bigger problem than their quarry.

Such is the cautionary tale for legislators and citizens alike. The hubris of clairvoyance is not a luxury a legislator can afford; while the humility of recognizing they and everyone aren’t perfect is essential to their task.

Indeed, human beings are imperfect and no amount of coercion—legislative or otherwise—can compel perfection. Thus, if an unsound law which ignores these two realities is imposed, it will engender a regression to past transgressions and/or to novel debasements of the citizenry; and an oppressive and, if unabated, a tyrannical government.

Conversely, warts and all, America has been and shall be shaped by her frail, flawed, imperfect sovereign citizens. This is the beauty of democracy. And, over the course of the centuries, sound laws have fostered Americans’ halting, faltering but courageous transcendence of their challenges in their pursuit of a more perfect union.

All the while we know new challenges await; and, absent prudence, old problems will recur.

Perusing the old the Senate Law Revision Task Force Report, I came across another Michigan statute we repealed for being arcane: the Weather Modification Act of 1978.

Back in the “Me Decade” (a.k.a., “the 1970s”), federal funding of weather modification—such as curtailing hail or causing rain—peaked, which led to states, like Michigan, adopting statutes governing the practice. In the case of Michigan, our agriculture department was required to license people who claimed they could modify the weather. Applicants had to provide data related to their qualifications, records related to their weather modifying activities, and financial solvency. It also provided for fees, hearings on license revocation, and immunized the state for damages caused by the weather modifier. Weather modifiers who violated this act would be guilty of a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $10,000.

Over time, this federal aid “declined due in part to both a lack of a statistical confirmation of hail suppression and rain enhancement seeding experiments” and ultimately ended. It was no surprise then, the Michigan Department of Agriculture recommended the repeal of our Weather Modification Act “since no effective means of modifying the weather has been developed and the act is not utilized [emphasis mine].”

Today, government still can’t prevent hail storms or make it rain. Yet, stopping climate change is all the rage. Perhaps, in hindsight, some wags might claim Michigan’s repeal of the Weather Modification Act in 2000 was less than perspicacious?

Might not it be helpful for the legislative zealots who, come hail or high water, push the “Green New Deal” to provide their qualifications, display the financial solvency, and demonstrate the past successes of their scheme to impose socialism to modify the weather?

I disagree and continue to support its repeal without modification (of weather or otherwise).

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Photo Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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