By EMERSON LYNN

The easiest thing to oppose are regulations that are unnecessary, outdated, harmful or unjustifiably costly. The trick, is to figure out which regulations fit the description. It’s such a thankless task, it’s rarely approached in any comprehensive manner, or in a way that would lend itself to a productive outcome.

Thanks to the world of big data, that task has been approached by economists at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Researchers there have developed an artificial intelligence program to digest large volumes of bureaucratic legalese, the purpose being to judge the effect of regulations.

Not only has the Center used its efforts to analyze the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, it has pushed to do the same level of analysis in each state. The “RegData” program is able to separate the regulations according to industry and according to the sectors of the economy in each state, making it useful to anyone with an interest in making things more efficient, or figuring out best practices used elsewhere.

The Center recently reported out its first state-by-state analysis, and, not surprisingly, found that California is the most regulated state [with 395,000 regulations], which stands to reason given it’s the most populated state. The least regulated state was South Dakota, with 44,000 regulatory restrictions.

If you had to guess where would you put Vermont?

Near the top, given our reputation?

Near the bottom because we’re so small?

Well, you can guess all you’d like because Vermont was one of four states not included. And not because the Center didn’t try, it did.

According to the Center, Vermont’s regulations, and the administrative codes required to view them, are managed by LexisNexis, a private company “whose terms and conditions prohibit downloading the text.” The Center tried contacting the company to get permission for the downloads, but the company never returned the Center’s calls.

That’s unfortunate, to say the least.

The Center’s program probably offers us the only immediate chance to see what our regulatory process looks like, who it affects and to what degree. If it were available, it would allow us to interpret potential barriers to growth, or economic advancement, to affordable housing, health care, insurance, or the state’s economic support system.

Typically there is a defensive response to such requests because the information could be used to challenge the status quo and there are those who like the status quo and who want things to remain exactly as they are.

But that misses the point. Our potential can’t be realized if we don’t know, or understand our limitations, self-imposed or not. And this process would involve all state government not a particular sector. So the advocates for more stringent environmental regulations might want to keep, or strengthen the rules most important to them, but they wouldn’t [or shouldn’t] stand in the way of questionable regulations governing affordable housing, or special education, or health care, to offer several obvious examples.

The Center’s project didn’t cost states a dime and, according to the Center, some states are using the information to streamline their regulatory codes. It’s a safe bet that the innovators are also looking at the information for ideas as to how to improve things and whether the information gives them guidance to better policies and opportunities that produce good jobs.

A hundred bucks says the governor doesn’t know that LexisNexis refused to return the Mercatus Center’s calls.

Maybe he should.

The Center’s phone number is 703-993-4930.

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