Garcia: The state plays mommy politics 

I can’t recall when the tide turned, but recently California began replacing politicians with social engineers and behavioral scientists. How else to explain the recent trend among lawmakers to try and enact laws regulating how we eat, where we smoke and how we conduct ourselves as parents?

It’s not that I’m against laws that would protect children, and I’m certainly in favor of more energy efficiency in our consumption-heavy state. But I generally prefer my elected officials to concentrate on fixing roads and waterways and deteriorating schools.

But there’s no denying that politicians have turned their eyes to behavior modification, a move thathas been met in many circles with suspicion, if not outright laughter.


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At the top of the social tinkering list this year is Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, who decided that she would boldly go where few officials have gone before — to the forefront on the issue of spanking. Lieber said she wanted to introduce a bill that would ban the spanking of children under 4 years of age. A noble thought, no doubt, but one that promptly got her whacked by her colleagues and comedians everywhere.

Lieber’s fellow Democrats largely abandoned her on the issue, but it was only the most visible of the many efforts to grapple with health issues ranging from obesity to secondhand smoke.

San Francisco’s own fiery state senator, Carole Migden, recently delved into the food preparation business by proposing to force "chain" restaurants to post calorie and saturated-fat counts on their menu items. That must have tickled the owners of more than a few brasseries, where the egg and cream quotient is high enough to put any arteries on alert. But chain restaurants are considered easy pickings in food-snooty San Francisco, even though the shelf life of high-end eateries lasts about as long as a car’s registration tag.

And then there’s my personal favorite, courtesy of Assemblyman LloydLevine, a Van Nuys Democrat who wants to prohibit the sale of incandescent light bulbs in the next few years, forcing people to rely on more energy-efficient fluorescent sources. While I certainly don’t see as many bright lights in Sacramento as I want, it’s clear that for Levine this could be a shining political moment — at least if the light manufacturing industry doesn’t blindside him with its lobbying efforts.

Far be it from me to say that there isn’t merit in each of these ideas, but I’m not so sure the general public believes that lawmakers in Sacramento should be legislating light bulb preference any more than pushing a bill trying to get people to stop driving cars with V-8 engines. I would also argue that the state Capitol is a bad place to try and change bad parenting habits, which are probably more directly influenced through education, local social programs, law enforcement and the courts.

Indeed, I’m not sure anyone can come up with a bill that would modify acts of stupidity by anyone — a notion that our headline-grabbing politicians should know based on officials’ acts dating back, say, 200 years. I mean, at what point should we be forced to rely on lawmakers to come up with ways to stop people from eating or behaving badly? I think time has shown that if someone wants to order the left side of a menu, carb counting is not the issue there. And the same goes for smoking outdoors in parks and on beaches — another pending bill that would have all the teeth of a goldfish.

"I think part of the trend is that officials are responding to new scientific research but clearly the legislature has been fiddling in the private lives of human beings for a long time," said Corey Cook, assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. "I’m sure that they would argue that they’re just trying to get involved with public health issues even though it’s kind of a narrow line."

And not just for humans. Assemblyman Levine, who has had a busy legislative agenda, also has introduced legislation that would allow pet owners to be fined if they don’t spay or neuter their dogs and cats. His bill has dog breeders all but barking for his head — but he maintains he’s just trying to stop the costly overcrowding in animal shelters that are filled with abandoned pets.

Of course, that measure also serves as a reminder that San Francisco’s leaders a few years back approved a plan to ban the term pet owner in favor of the more politically correct "pet guardian."

And striking that blow to restore the respect and dignity of our friends in the animal kingdom just shows that some laws are made to be (house) broken.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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