upon adjournment

The debate over the ‘nanny state’

Vic Vela
Posted

If you have ever seen a 1950’s sitcom, a la “Leave it to Beaver,” you know exactly how opponents of perceived “nanny state” government intrusions view some of the bills that have emerged from this legislative session.

“Aw, gee whiz, mom. Do I have to?”

So far this session, we have seen legislation aimed at curbing smoking, tanning and talking on cell phones.

But the bills have a worse winning percentage than the Buffalo Bills. Legislation that sought to ban the sale of cigarettes to folks under 21 failed in a House committee recently, as did a separate effort that would have required drivers to use hands-free devices when talking on their cell phones.

Meanwhile, a bill that prohibits people under 18 from using tanning beds barely passed the House and faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

The bills have led to fascinating debates among lawmakers over government’s role in the balancing of setting sound public health and safety policy while protecting citizens’ rights to make decisions for themselves – whether they’re bad ones or not.

“To pass a law against everything all the time is, once again, the nanny state,” Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

Republicans like Gardner typically don’t like this kind of stuff – bills aimed telling people what they can and can’t do. But this year’s efforts have blurred political lines.

The under-21 smoking ban bill received Republican sponsorship. And some Democrats opposed both the youth tanning bed ban and the bill that deals with drivers’ use of cell phones.

“There is a streak within Colorado, both among Democrats and Republicans, who have a Libertarian tendency, and I tend to be one of those,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said.

Ferrandino voted against the tanning bill and said he would not have supported the smoking ban bill, either.

“There’s a difference between when it impacts you and you’re making your own decision versus what the impact on what someone else is,” he said.

But the House’s second-in-command disagrees. House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, voted for the youth tanning bed legislation and supported the effort to ban the sale of smokes to those under 21.

“We act all the time in this body and at all legislative bodies across the country to attempt to improve public health and safety, and this is one pretty good idea that I support,” she said.

Supporters of the so-called “nanny state” bills say the policy proposals aren’t government’s way of telling adults not to run with scissors. They believe they are setting sound public safety policy.

Breaking news: cancer is bad for you. And smoking and ultraviolet rays cause it. And the last person you want to be driving behind on the interstate is some dumbbell who is flipping through every conceivable application on his phone while others drive by, flipping him off.

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, who sponsored the cell phone legislation, said people once thought that laws requiring people to wear seat belts were also nanny state efforts.

“I think we found that over time that it became acceptable, and now it’s become a complete habit to buckle your seat belt when you get into a vehicle,” Melton said. “I think its more than just government trying to tell you what to do, but also looking at how can we lower some of our costs by doing some things now.”

But does Joe Public like legislative efforts to curb bad or unhealthy behaviors?

“You have certain constituencies that are very passionate about these issues,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who used the youth tanning bed bill as an example. “But I can tell you that the people who I represent, it’s not even at the top of their list – don’t even make their list.”

But do politicians practice consistency when they talk about not wanting the government to intrude on people’s affairs?

Republicans will blast government attempts to intervene in a person’s life, but do their views on a woman’s right to choose or support of gay marriage bans confuse the issue?

At the same time, if Democrats want the government to stay out of people’s bedrooms, why is it OK for it be in tanning rooms?

Ferrandino acknowledges that, on issues like these, “sometimes it becomes a political thing, rather than a fundamental ideology thing.”

“I really appreciate people who are consistent in their Libertarian identity,” the House speaker said.

Efforts to curb bad behaviors have been a staple of state and federal government for a long, long time and I doubt they’re going any where, any time soon.

But does telling someone not to do something that’s bad for them really work?

I’m not sure. But it reminds me of a line from the Dudley Moore classic comedy “Arthur,” when Arthur’s fiance tells the lovable drunk that “a real woman can stop you from drinking.”

“It’d have to be a real big woman,” Arthur said.