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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Critics Deride 'Nanny State' Measures, Supporters Say Laws Are Justified

Shannon Holman, Dept of Transportation and Alexandra Kocik

SALEM, Ore. – Some of the fiercest debates this year in the Oregon legislature have revolved around something critics call the “nanny state.” These are bills to regulate personal behavior. The issues may change, but it’s a conversation that’s been going on for decades.

Let's start with a recent example. A measure that would ban smoking in cars when there are children present. Republican Oregon state Senator Jeff Kruse is a smoker, but that’s not why he opposes the bill.

"It's not government's job to tell me how to run my own life," Kruse says. "Government has some very specific functions. And controlling all aspects of my life should not be one of them."

Kruse added he doesn’t personally light up when there are kids in the car with him. But supporters of the measure say a new law is necessary to protect kids from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Veteran Democratic state Senator Rod Monroe said it reminded him of a debate 30 years ago. At that time, the discussion was whether to require parents to put children in car seats.

"The arguments against it were very similar,"Monroe recalls. "'Oh, we're just getting into a nanny state.' Well, I'm sorry. When the health and welfare of our children is at play, then I believe the state does have a role to play in making sure that they are safe."

The nanny state label has been attached to other bills this year, including one that would ban teens from using tanning salons without a doctor's permission and one to prohibit people from feeding raccoons. Another measure would up the fines for texting while driving.

Why the backlash to such proposals?

"There's a kind of libertarian streak in Oregon politics," expains retired Oregon State University political analyst Bill Lunch.

He says Oregonians have long displayed a tendency to want government to stay out of their business. But he says there's also been a tradition of asking government to look out for vulnerable members of society.

“We believe in both those of principles," Lunch says. "But there are points at which they run into each other in ways that are troublesome, create friction, create problems.”

And Lunch says those who argue for a stronger government role don't just limit their ideas to protecting children. He says seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws protect adults, too.