So what is going on in Pennsylvania? On paper, Pennsylvania appears to have a robust amusement oversight program.
- Pennsylvania grants broad authority to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to set safety standards for the operation of amusement rides, issue notices for violations of the standards set, establish record keeping and reporting procedures for amusement ride operators, issue subpoenas for documents and testimony in an amusement ride investigation, and to generally adopt whatever rules and regulations are necessary to oversee the operation of amusement rides in Pennsylvania.
- Pennsylvania has a legislatively created Amusement Ride Safety Advisory Board to advise and consult on state amusement regulation, consisting of ten Governor-appointed members representing carnival owners, fixed park operators, county fairs, safety officials, and the general public.
- Pennsylvania requires all amusement rides to be inspected by a state-certified qualified inspector on a monthly basis or, for travelling shows, at each new location the ride is set up. Amusement operators must file affidavits with the State after each inspection to document that the inspections have been done.
- State officials are authorized to shut down rides for safety issues and to keep them shut down until the ride is certified safe by a qualified inspector and the operator's insurer.
- The law also requires amusement operators to report serious injuries or deaths to the state and the ride manufacturer within 48 hours of the accident, and to retain three years of up-to-date maintenance and inspection records for each ride operated.
- Violations of the Pennsylvania Ride Inspection Act can result in civil and criminal penalties, including jail time.
State records show that more than half of Pennsylvania’s permanent parks and water parks did not turn in all of their 2012 reports -- affidavits in which certified inspectors attest that they’ve performed the inspections required by law. The agency had no reports at all for 12 of the state’s 117 permanent parks and water parks PublicSource analyzed.
Pennsylvania seems to be a case where the rules don't necessarily match the reality. The legislature has set up an aggressive program for amusement oversight, but any rule is only as good as its enforcement. And that appears to be the problem in Pennsylvania. According to PublicSource, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's "enforcement actions are scant. Even parks that have repeatedly failed to turn in safety inspection reports seldom pay fines, and rides are rarely shut down."
Now, some of you may be wondering why I, of all people, am highlighting an obvious example of the shortcomings of state-run oversight. After all, I have not been silent in the past in my opposition to federal oversight of the amusement industry and have advocated for the efficacy of state-run regulation. Doesn't Pennsylvania's example undermine exactly what I have previously espoused? I don't think so. I've said it before: I'm not against amusement industry regulation. I am against amusement industry regulation that won't work. And I actually think the experience in Pennsylvania proves my point precisely.
The problems in Pennsylvania show exactly what can, and will, happen when the realities of government budgets and public policy priorities meet the well-intentioned efforts of legislators who only bear responsibility for creating programs to appease their constituency, but who have no responsibility for actually running them on a daily basis. What do I mean? Well, for starters, it appears clear that the problems with Pennsylvania's oversight do not result from regulatory apathy, but from the budgetary limitations of the agency charged with the task of oversight. According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan, statewide policy research project that provides independent analysis of state tax, budget, and related policy matters, "2012 mark[ed] the fifth straight year of cuts to state services." The PBPC states that, as a result of these state-level budget cuts, Pennsylvania's "children are being taught in more crowded classrooms, college students are paying higher tuition, and women and children are being denied healthcare."
These cuts have undoubtedly impacted Pennsylvania's ride safety program as well. According to PublicSource, in 2009 there were seven state certified ride inspectors in Pennsylvania. In 2012, that number had been reduced to four. Put another way, whereas in 2009, an inspector in Pennsylvania had responsibility for approximately 115 amusement ride operators, today the four remaining inspectors have responsibility for approximately 200 operators each. At that level of staffing, Pennsylvania simply can't keep up with what the regulations demand.
And therein lies the inevitable problem with federal oversight. Put aside for the moment my fervent belief that a federal regulatory system is ill-advised given the particularly local nature of the amusement industry. Forget for a minute that I just think it patently unfair that citizens of states with little or no amusement ride presence should have to foot the bill to support oversight of amusements in other states. Let's concentrate on the realities of the federal government for a minute. The financial woes of the United States dominate virtually every conversation in Washington these days. Budget cuts at the federal level have:
- Cut funding for the federal public defenders' office by 14% greatly impacting the operation of the federal criminal justice system;
- Forced cancer clinics to turn away patients in need of chemotherapy;
- Delayed indefinitely implementation of much-needed improvements to the federal air traffic control system;
- Resulted in the reduction of active duty troops in the Army by 80,000, with another 100,000 projected to be cut over the next ten years.
These, and others just like them, are serious problems in need of real solutions. Unfortunately, underlying them all is money. There just isn't enough to accomplish everything we would like to accomplish as a nation. Now, ask yourself, how would a federal amusment ride regulatory program fit into a federal budget that is already full of underfunded programs - most of which carry far more social gravitas than the amusement industry. Are we really to believe that the federal government will invest the money necessary to inspect the tilt-a-whirl set up by a travelling show every week or two when it can't afford to spend money keeping cancer patients alive? Would anyone really want it to? Given the choice between air-traffic control improvements or federalized inspections of roller coasters, is there anyone (aside, perhaps, from Senator Ed Markey) who would choose roller coasters?
It's one thing for legislators, like Senator Markey, to speak out in the media about the need for federal oversight or to propose legislation that might implement it. It is another thing entirely to have a workable program. Pennsylvania is proof that even the best programs can fall short if they are not given the funding and policy support necessary to implement them. Given the state of our country today, I see no reason to believe that a federal oversight program, shoehorned into a federal budget overflowing with important and woefully underfunded programs, would be any different.