Are California Laws Getting Too Personal?

California lawmakers eye a series of laws to change people's behavior, from neutering dogs and cats to outlawing energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs. Some find the efforts intrusive, but California isn't alone in considering these kinds of measures.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

California once pioneered laws to ban smoking in public places. Now lawmakers there have proposed a slew of new bills that would regulate all kinds of personal behavior. Critics call them nanny laws.

But as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, when it comes to these kinds of measures, California may no longer be the leader of the pack.

INA JAFFE: There are at least 11 bills pending in the California legislature that would change what people eat, where they smoke, how they light their homes and save money and care for their pets. There would be at least 12 bills, but the ban on spanking was withdrawn. Republicans like Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines say the Democrats, who proposed all these measures, are trying to create a nanny state.

Mr. MIKE VILLINES (California Assembly): What we're talking about is when you try to regulate personal behavior, and it doesn't work.

JAFFE: For example, he says, take the bill that would make it illegal to smoke in your car if there were children present.

Mr. VILLINES: That's should be scorned upon. But do I want to make a criminal, potentially, out of a single mother who's driving in the car, trying to get her kids to daycare so she can go to work? No. So you know, regulating behavior and making criminals out of people are two different things.

State Senator JENNY OROPEZA (Democrat, California): If we cannot protect our children from this undeniable health risk, I think we are as a society in a very sad state of affairs.

JAFFE: State Senator Jenny Oropeza is the author of the measure to ban smoking in cars where kids are present.

State Senator OROPEZA: Just like the law says that no one under 18 can purchase a pack of cigarettes, we are now saying that they also should not be exposed to the impacts of second-hand smoke.

JAFFE: If that law passes, California will not be the first state with this restriction. Arkansas and Louisiana have already banned smoking in cars with children present. Sixteen states are now considering it. Another hot-button public health issue is trans fat, the artificially hydrogenated, artery-clogging vegetable oil. New York City was the first to ban it. And now...

Ms. AMY WINTERFIELD (National Conference of State Legislatures): There are also proposals in Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii...

JAFFE: Amy Winterfield is with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ms. WINTERFIELD: ...New Jersey, New York State, Rhode Island and Texas.

JAFFE: At least 12 states, including California, where there are four measures pending; the most sweeping was introduced by assembly member Tony Mendoza.

Mr. TONY MENDOZA (California Assembly): The state has always traditionally stepped in when it comes to the public health. We eliminated lead from paints, required seatbelts to be worn in cars and helmets to be worn in motorcycles, and this is just another incident of us stepping in to remove a harmful product that is really not needed.

JAFFE: Something else that is not needed, says assembly member Lloyd Levine, is the one million stray dogs and cats that wind up in California's pet shelters every year. So he's proposed requiring dog and cat owners to spay or neuter their pets.

Mr. LLOYD LEVINE (California Assembly): Reducing the number of animals breeding wantonly and resulting in unwanted cats and dogs.

JAFFE: Levine's introduced another measure that may reclaim California's trendsetter status, at least in the United States; he wants to ban all incandescent light bulbs by 2012 in favor of the more energy-efficient compact fluorescents.

Mr. LEVINE: So what we're proposing to do is simply wean the consumer, so to speak, off of the traditional bulb and onto the more efficient bulb.

JAFFE: Wean the consumer?

Mr. NICK GILLESPIE (Editor in Chief, Reason): Almost all of these laws have the effect of infantilizing adult Americans and saying, you are not allowed to do this, you are not allowed to consume this, you are not allowed to live your life this way.

JAFFE: Says Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, a libertarian publication. So-called nanny state laws, he says, can erode personal freedoms in unintended ways. Take the measure to ban smoking in cars with kids present, for instance.

Mr. GILLESPIE: Is it a good thing to give the police one more pretext to say, okay, you know what, I want to pull you up because I thought you were smoking, and I thought there was a kid in the car.

JAFFE: The lawmakers who have proposed these bills unsurprisingly hate the term nanny state laws. They're protecting dogs and cats and the public health and curbing global warming, they'll tell you. There are two kinds of nannies, apparently: the one who bosses you around, and the one who only wants what's best for you.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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