A city’s solution to a nonexistent problem

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

The cost of sending kids to college has been climbing faster than people’s incomes. So a Michigan mother’s way of coping with that troubling trend has drawn considerable attention.

Her “solution” is worth our examination, given the controversial direction Iowa’s second-largest city is heading. More about that shortly.

Lori Truex is a school bus driver in Battle Creek, Mich. Her husband is a factory worker. Their youngest daughter, Kendall, is heading to Michigan State University this fall after spending two years at home while attending community college.

Once her bus-driving ended for the summer, Lori Truex’s full-time summer “job” has been to stand at street corners in Battle Creek for at least eight hours a day. She holds an assortment of neatly lettered signs:

“Help Send a 4.0 Kid to College,” one says.

“79 Days to Pay College Tuition,” another says.

“Can You Help? Tuition Is $24,152,” says one that makes you gasp.

The Truex family took on a big dose of debt when they last sent a kid off to college. You can’t blame them for wanting to avoid that this time — even if it means resorting to panhandling.

Experts caution parents about the dangers of tapping into their retirement savings to pay for a child’s college education. But what parent wants to see that child graduate with a student loan debt that is the size of a home mortgage a generation or two ago?

In-state tuition, room and board, plus books costs $29,500 a year at Michigan State. A couple of grants have reduced the Truex family’s share of those costs to the $24,152 figure shown on the sign.

Kendall’s summer job as a lifeguard isn’t going to make that financial burden disappear. But to date, Lori Truex’s fundraising has brought in about half of what the family needs for Kendall’s fall semester.

Lori Truex told a reporter midway through her unusual summer: “I truly feel so blessed. Everyone has been so kind, so generous. This is out of my comfort zone, but you do what you have to do for your kids.”

While the mom’s approach is certainly creative, her actions would land her in legal hot water if she were doing this in Cedar Rapids. That’s because the city is moving to make such street-side solicitations a crime there — a crime punishable by 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $625.

Cedar Rapids officials say they are trying to protect pedestrian safety — although they are unable to point to any rash of accidents to show panhandling is a danger.

Officials’ true motivation is obscured by only a thin layer of road dust: They want to chase away panhandlers, especially those who claim to be unemployed or homeless.

City leaders aren’t enamored with perceptions their community has a problem with poverty or homelessness. Having unshaven people in tattered clothes begging isn’t the image the city wants.

But there is a big problem trying to outlaw panhandling: Federal courts across the United States have ruled that you cannot do that, because soliciting money is one form of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

It doesn’t matter what the cause is — your favorite charity, your favorite political candidate. Nor does it matter if your favorite cause is you.

There’s another problem with Cedar Rapids’ efforts to legislate away panhandlers. Besides the homeless and the hungry that use this fundraising technique, the planned ordinance would affect a popular and successful fundraising campaign.

For the past 32 years, Cedar Rapids firefighters have stood at intersections holding their big rubber boots in the days leading up to Labor Day. The firefighters’ “fill the boot” campaign raises thousands of dollars each year to help support the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The proposed ordinance forbids pedestrians to “sit, walk, stand or enter” certain busy intersections. Elsewhere in the city, the ordinance would forbid pedestrians from walking onto a street “for the purpose of entering a private vehicle or exchanging anything with an occupant of a vehicle.”

And the ordinance would prohibit pedestrians from standing on a median between lanes of traffic for more than one traffic light cycle.

The ordinance says it is not intended to prevent anyone from exercising free speech rights by soliciting money. That’s true. Nothing would stop someone from holding a sign asking for money.

But the ordinance prevents them from stepping into a street to accept money from a driver or passenger — even if the money is collected in a firefighter’s boot or in a container held by the creative mother of a college student.

There are already plenty of laws on the books that can be used to punish people who engage in harassment or block traffic. To me, this is one of those government solutions in search of a problem.