Sometimes a scenario is just too ridiculous to discuss seriously.

Like this one: Joe is the imaginary proprietor of an equally non-existent department store.His business is new, so he's not making a lot of money yet. He is, however, getting by with careful planning and a thrifty approach to his work.

He has a major problem, though. About once a week, the same individual comes into his store and steals an armload of record albums.

Joe has tried to deal with the situation. When he tells this individual that theft is illegal, the shoplifter looks him right in the eye and laughs.

It's true, the thief tells him. There is a law on the books that says no one has the right to "help himself" to merchandise.

Unfortunately, there's no one to enforce that law. The nearest policing agency is reached by a 10-hour car trip. Joe would have to take his complaint to Denver to get help.

He just can't afford to do that.

Obviously, that's a ridiculous scenario. It doesn't happen.

But it's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

That's exactly what happens in Utah if someone believes he's a victim of housing discrimination.

Utah lawmakers enacted the Fair Housing Act more than a year ago. Since then, it's had some problems meeting federal standards.

But the biggest problem is basic: During the past two sessions legislators have pleaded poverty and failed to provide the money so that an office can actually be established within the state. That's the backbone of and reason for the law.

For lack of about $41,000, Utahns who believe that they have been illegally discriminated against in housing have to travel to Denver to get their complaint heard. Just like they did before Utah had a fair-housing law.

The state's law is in line with an existing federal law that makes it illegal to discriminate in housing or financing for housing for reasons like race, religion or because someone has children.

Enactment of the state law was a years-long, hard-fought battle. In one session of the Legislature, it failed in the final seconds. When it passed, proponents were thrilled.

The celebration was a little premature.

When you talk about personal income, $41,000 sounds like quite a bit of money. In the grand scheme of government spending, it's almost laughably small. It costs more than $1 billion a year to run the state.

During the past session, millions of dollars were allocated to renovate the Salt Palace and several theaters around the state. Utah has put more than it would cost to establish a fair-housing office into paying legislators to participate on task forces.

The people who are really being hurt by the lack of funding for a local office are the people who can't afford to go to Denver to file a complaint. If they can't afford to fight discrimination, they must bow to it and move on.

Hardest hit are those who live in poverty. Finding affordable housing is a trick to begin with for low-income people. If they believe they're being treated unfairly, they are denied the chance of a fair hearing.

The operative word in this story is fair. Fair housing, fair funding, fair laws, fair access and a fair shot at justice.

It was easier to take before the law was enacted. A lot of residents were unhappy when Utah was one of the minority of states without such a law. I don't think that's nearly as peculiar as having a law but not a mechanism to enforce it.

Advocates for the poor have said that they will pursue the issue and hope to see it on the agenda of any upcoming special legislative session.

It's impossible to predict what will happen.

It's easier to predict other money-allocating processes. When Salt Lake County allocates block grant funds, for instance, a consistent process has taken place.

Citizen volunteers who sit on allocation panels have visited the programs that ask for the money. They have talked to program participants. They have interviewed the people who operate the program.

Lawmakers are forced by the nature of their process to make funding decisions about places and programs with which they may not even be familiar.

Most of the time, things work out all right. Occasionally, though, the result is a fair-housing law that exists only in theory.

But theory doesn't help when you're trying to find a place to live.