Dan Walters, CALmatters Commentary

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

CALmatters

Critics, particularly Republicans, often complain that Democrats who control the state Legislature yearn to minutely control or heavily tax any human behavior they don’t like.

Democratic legislators often seem eager to justify the criticism by passing pettifogging “nanny” bills. But in doing so, they occasionally engender some kickback — adult supervision of a sort — from governors.

As he sifts through hundreds of measures sent to his desk last month, Gov. Jerry Brown has singled out for veto some that he sees as being particularly nettlesome.

Take, for instance, Assembly Bill 63, which, if signed, would have required Californians of ages 18 to 22 to wait at least 60 days after receiving their driving learner’s permits and complete at least 50 hours of supervised driving before applying for licenses.

Then, once receiving provisional licenses, these young drivers could operate cars for the first year only within strict limits, such as no driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and not carrying passengers younger than 20 without supervision (even younger drivers already have all these restrictions).

It was aimed at reducing the number of accidents involving young drivers. But as Brown pointed out in his veto message, it would treat young Californians who are considered adults in almost every other respect – such as being allowed to vote and being eligible for military service — as if they were wayward children.

Brown said the bill by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, a Brentwood Democrat, would “create a burden on a segment of the population of adult Californians who are no longer seen as a minor in the eyes of the law.”

It was one of several bills trying to redefine adulthood that were considered in the legislative session. They included one to drop the voting age to 16 and another to make it more difficult for teenagers to be legally married. Consistency has never been a hallmark of the California Legislature.

Brown’s skepticism about nanny government was displayed again when he vetoed two bills (Senate Bill 386 and Assembly Bill 725) that would have barred smoking in state parks and on state beaches and imposed stiff fines for, as Brown said, “lighting one cigarette.”

“If people can’t smoke even on a deserted beach, where can they?” he asked rhetorically in his veto messages. “There must be some limit to the coercive power of government.”

The latter comment is the key to the issue.

At some point, legislative nannyism goes beyond dealing with even theoretical dangers to the larger public and becomes arbitrary, even coercive, punishment for behavior that those in power simply dislike, for whatever reason.

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Tellingly, the author of one of the smoking bills Brown rejected, Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, also tried to force, via legislation, the small Mendocino County community of Fort Bragg to change its name. It was originally a 19th-century military outpost named for a U.S. Army officer who later fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Democratic legislators debate and sometimes pass such bills, even as they complain ceaselessly about a Republican-dominated federal government high-handedly imposing its will on those of different cultural or ideological persuasions.

In either capital, petty efforts to dictate personal behavior can occur only because one political party so completely dominates that its members believe they have license to legislate without restraint.

Fortunately, in Sacramento they must contend with a governor with, shall we say, more mature wisdom about such matters.

But Washington? Executive maturity and restraint appear to be in short supply.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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