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The State

Big mother is watching with new laws in mind

Democratic proposals to regulate behavior draw Republican scorn.

March 08, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Sacramento -- Enjoy fast food? Like to light up while you watch the waves? Forget to sock away money for your kids' education?

Some California lawmakers want to change your ways. They've planted a crop of proposals this year -- "nanny" bills, as they're called -- that would:

* Restrict the use of artery-clogging trans fat, common in fried and baked foods and linked to heart disease, in restaurants and school cafeterias.

* Bar smoking at state parks and beaches, and in cars carrying children.

* Open a savings account, seeded with $500, for every newborn Californian to use at 18 for college, a first home purchase or an investment for retirement.

* Fine dog and cat owners who don't spay or neuter their pets by 4 months of age.

* Require chain restaurants to list calorie, saturated fat and sodium content on menus.

* Phase out the sale of incandescent light bulbs, which are less energy-efficient than compact fluorescent bulbs.

The debate has commenced in the Capitol: How far should government go?

The proposals are the brainchildren of Democratic legislators. Republicans, who say the sponsors are trying to parent the whole state, are having none of it.

"Could you imagine the founding fathers dealing with -- I don't know -- wearing a helmet when you're in the buggy?" said the Assembly's Republican leader, Mike Villines of Clovis.

"We all know you can't mandate behavior; it just does not work," he said. "It creates criminals of people for things that are not criminal behavior.... You can't legislate for stupidity."

Political scientists say legislative paternalism can be taken as a sign of economic success. It's "post materialist," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, because such measures are about quality of life, not survival.

"These post-materialist concerns may be ahead of the curve," Cain said. "Some of the things we did that seemed kooky 20 years ago are now widely accepted."

New York City made history in December by voting to eliminate trans fat from the city's 20,000 restaurants by July 2008. Nineteen Southern California cities ban smoking on city beaches, and it's illegal to smoke in a car with children in Louisiana and Arkansas.

Australia recently moved to end the sale of incandescent light bulbs, and 15 countries ban all corporal punishment of children.

Last year, Rhode Island became the first state to require cat owners to spay or neuter their pets or buy permits. And since 2005, the United Kingdom has opened investment accounts for its newborns.

But that doesn't mean Californians -- often the pioneers on such things -- will follow.

One lawmaker has already tripped on the threshold of public tolerance.

After Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) told a reporter in January that she intended to propose a ban on the spanking of children younger than 4 years, news spread around the world. Lieber's office was deluged with calls and e-mails, some expressing support but most voicing outrage.

Lieber's fellow Democrats refused to back her, and last week she retooled her measure to allow spanking but make it easier to prosecute parents who hurt children.

Lieber said she welcomed the attention -- good, bad or uninformed.

"Maybe some people get confused and think [spanking] is already illegal," she said, "which would be great."

Some lawmakers see "nanny" legislation as life-or-death decisions on behalf of their constituents.

"Trans fat kills," said Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who proposes banning trans fat from restaurants, grocery store delis and school cafeterias by July 2009. "We have a responsibility to protect the public from harmful products."

Moreover, Mendoza said, "the cost of healthcare is an issue for everyone. If we can lower the incidence of diabetes and heart disease, it will help everyone."

To encourage more healthful choices, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) introduced the measure that would require restaurant chain menus to include nutritional information.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) would make it illegal to smoke on a state beach or in a car with a child. "A lot of people don't realize the full impact" of second-hand smoke on the immature lungs of a youngster, she said.

"I'm not into going into people's homes and telling them what to do, but when it comes to children and those who cannot stand up for themselves, I do draw a distinction," she said.

It's easy to move away from somebody smoking on a beach. But "why should we have to?" Oropeza said. "They have a right to smoke. The line is drawn where their smoke affects someone else."

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) likewise defends his proposal to ban mutt owners from breeding their dogs. Owners of purebred, registered dogs and cats could buy a breeder's license under his legislation.

"Am I taking away your right to indiscriminately breed a dog," he said, "or am I helping everybody else whose tax dollars go to pay for the shelters that house unwanted animals?"

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