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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane has a telegraph tax that hasn’t collected a dime this century. Why it and other outdated laws in Washington are still on the books

The city of Spokane hasn’t collected a dime in telegraph tax revenue this century, which isn’t much of a surprise.

The telegram, which peaked in popularity during the Roaring ’20s and Great Depression, was obsolete long before Seattle lost the SuperSonics. Western Union, the international corporation once synonymous with telegrams, abandoned the telegraph business in 2006. The city’s public records staff told The Spokesman-Review the tax hasn’t brought in any revenue since at least 2000.

But if some brave entrepreneur opened a telegraph company in Spokane tomorrow, they’d have to start paying City Hall “three and one-half percent” of their startup’s gross income.

Spokane isn’t an outlier in having such a redundant rule on the books – one that could remain in place for years to come.

Most cities, counties and states have outdated or frivolous laws, and few lawmakers think that undoing them is worth the trouble. Merely identifying all the outdated laws would require a Herculean effort. If someone wanted to do it at the state level, they’d have to read through the revised code of Washington – which is tens of thousands of pages long.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat, sponsored a bill this spring that repealed several dozen outdated and unconstitutional Washington laws simultaneously.

But even Pedersen, a longtime lawyer, doesn’t consider outdated laws a top priority.

“Does it hurt anything that there’s a telegraph tax if there’s no telegraph? I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that most of us are motivated by solving actual, current problems that our constituents are facing, and less interested in having the law books be clean and tidy.”

Washington isn’t the only state with some surprises. While many of the most hilarious laws referenced online aren’t real, plenty of weird laws exist across the nation.

In Massachusetts, anyone who bungles the national anthem or plays it as dance music “shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.” The city of Mobile, Alabama, outlaws the use and sale of Silly String.

Mark Lally, deputy code adviser for the Washington Office of the Code Adviser, said he doesn’t know of any funny state laws.

Representatives gung-ho about eliminating legislation sometimes call his office looking for easy targets. Lally said he never has anything to offer them, because most of the state’s quirkiest laws “got taken care of a while ago.”

Outdated laws aren’t always amusing. Plenty of states have offensive laws on their books, too.

In 2005, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles advocated for repealing the Washington statute that prohibited people from questioning a woman’s virtue.

Before Gov. Christine Gregoire signed Kohl-Welles’ bill into law 18 years ago, it was a misdemeanor offense to use “false or defamatory words” to “injure or impair” the reputation of a woman over 12, unless the woman was a “common prostitute.”

Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat and former women’s studies professor, argued the law was patronizing and misogynistic.

Pedersen helped pass another bill this year that repealed a long list of laws the state Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.

Among them, the state law that allowed the death penalty, which hadn’t been enforceable since 2018. The law that allowed forced sterilization had been unconstitutional at the federal level since the early 1940s. A law forbidding avowed communists from holding government jobs hadn’t been legal since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1964.

State lawmakers propose 2,000 or so laws in a given year, Pedersen said, and the Legislature might act on 400 of those. The Legislature only has so much time, and repealing redundancies isn’t essential.

But when time allows, Lally and Pedersen both said cleaning up the books is a good idea.

“I’m a big fan of decluttering, and there’s enough laws already,” Lally said. “Why have laws out there that have no force and effect?”