Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a faraway land called Pennsylvania, a woman named Sarah Palin brought 200 protest cookies to school for children at the Plumstead Christian School - because she had read a report – mistaken as it turns out – that the state was going to ban such sweets from public school parties.
Sarah mocked the policy as a “nanny state run amok.” She was there to fight for the freedom of sweet treats. “Who should be making the decisions on what you eat … in school, choices: Should it be government or should it be the parents?” Sarah asked her crowd. “It should be the parents.”
Oh, no, said I, if this is true, then Texas has three of the biggest nannies in the land: Susan Combs, Todd Staples and Rick Perry. And the Legislature has been nannying up a storm as of late, seeking to impose government dictates on its citizens for their own good.
Let’s start at the beginning, when government was wise, children were wonderful and we all wanted what was best for our future generations.
As the state’s Lord of Agriculture in 2003, Susan Combs with Governor Perry’s help convinced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to transfer school nutrition programs to her. And the Legislature passed and Perry signed SB 474 authorizing a study of healthy foods in schools. Susan then instituted a state policy limiting sweet treats and fatty foods in elementary schools. Susan told The Dallas Morning News the policy was “progressive” and that “We think it’s going to be duplicated all over … every state is looking at the same kind of thing.” (Wouldn’t it be ironic if, after blowing the appliance rebate, losing $19 million in state funds to a Bernie Madoff investment and exposing the personal data of 3.5 million Texans to identity thieves, Susan Combs was done in by the freedom-loving sugar cookie eaters of the 2012 GOP primary for lieutenant governor?) The current Lord of Agriculture, Todd Staples, carried forward the policy of limiting children’s freedom to eat Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value.
That brings us to today. State lawmaker Carol Alvarado is trying to expand this program to high schools, banning sugary drinks and fatty milks from sale during regular school hours. After all, the Texas Department of State Health Services says 35 percent of Texas school children are obese and health problems caused by obesity likely will cost state government and businesses $39 billion by 2040. Anti-nanny lawmaker Jodie Laubenberg tried to block the bill, saying 18-year-old students who are young adults should have the freedom to choose what they drink. And Laubenberg argued that the bill would cost the schools money in the form of lost drink sales, “They sell the product to the kids.” In the fairy tale of the 82nd Legislature, Laubenberg must have believed sales of soda and whole fat chocolate milk would make up for the $71 million she voted to cut from the two largest school systems in her district in the House version of the budget.
And, speaking of the budget, Senate Republicans pulled an end-run to advance their version of the appropriations bill after cratering to right-wing groups on not spending money from the rainy day fund. Perhaps the Senate should have carried a nanny state label declaring, “Warning: Will fold like an old lawn chair under pressure.” But when the House Republicans saw computer runs on what their budget would do to their local school district, they cried, “Momma,” and sought ways to make the higher-spending Senate bill work.
Senate finance chairman Steve Ogden bemoaned the fact Perry once favored spending the rainy day fund but now opposes it. Should Ogden be surprised by a governor who helped take sweet treats from children but now complains that the federal government tells us how much salt to put on our food. Perhaps when you’re Fed Up!, it means you’re filled up and don’t want any more sweets, such as $390 million Perry asked for from the rainy day fund in 2003 to set up the Texas Enterprise Fund.
Meanwhile, back at the House, lawmakers found other ways to tell Texans how to run their lives. The House gave its blessing to lowering the age at which someone may operate a personal watercraft from 16 to 13, while also raising the age for obtaining a hardship driver’s license from 15 to 15 ½ with a driver’s education requirement. Those old enough will recall Governor Perry’s daughter, Sydney, got a hardship license when she was 15 in 2002 because her parents often traveled.
The House also approved a bill by Corpus Christi Republican Todd Hunter to banish a boat-owner’s ability to ride in his watercraft while it is being towed on a public roadway. An image comes to mind of the wife towing the new bass boat with the family SUV while hubby rides at the watercraft’s steering console happily waving at the neighbors. Then you hear the ghostly sound of Jeff Foxworthy asking: What are the last words of a redneck? “Hey, y’all, watch this.”
Then there was the bitter House nanny state fight between Republicans Vicki Truitt of Keller and Gary Elkins of Houston. Keller had a bill to protect consumers from borrowing money from payday lenders that they will have a hard time repaying at extraordinarily high interest rates. It’s sort of Texas’ version of the predatory banks convincing people to take out subprime mortgages that they could not afford. Payday lender and state Representative Elkins intervened to try to block Truitt’s bill. Truitt accused Elkins of trying “to add to your personal wealth” by killing her bill. Nonsense, said the freedom-loving Elkins. “This is not about my business,” he declared, but about a bill that “is nothing more than an expansion of government to try to solve a problem that just doesn’t exist.” When all else fails, play the nanny card. Though in this case it only slowed the bill down on its way to the Senate.
But in perhaps the biggest nanny-state play of the session, the Senate had no trouble making social policy when it came to a woman’s liberty to control her own body.
Abortion is a tough policy issue because it is a matter of faith. You either believe life begins at conception or you believe a woman should be free to determine the fate of her pregnancy so long as a fetus is not viable outside the womb. There is no hard proof for either side to make its case. It is an article of faith, like choosing a religion or no religion at all. So the law of the land for almost 40 years has been it is up to a woman and her doctor to decide what is right.
But Perry on Tuesday held a Governor’s Reception Room celebratory signing of a law that will require women seeking an abortion to have a sonogram and hear a detailed description of the fetus and be presented images and heartbeats and then have to wait 24 hours before having an abortion unless they live more than 100 miles from an abortion facility. When the bill was before the Senate, Senator John Whitmire said the bill will have “the state of Texas intervening in their health care,” and Senator Wendy Davis said the bill was meant to bully women, “The purpose is to traumatize women who are considering an abortion procedure into make a decision otherwise.” Sponsoring Senator Dan Patrick was indignant: “You know me better than that,” but he also noted that “hopefully, lives can be saved after seeing the sonogram and hearing the heartbeat.” Dan Patrick as Big Brother. Patrick stood at Perry’s side, along with helicopter-hog-hunting Sid Miller, several anti-abortion leaders and close to two-dozen Concerned Women for America as Perry inked the bill that he officially signed last Friday. Perry made little pretense that the new law is about fully informing women before a medical procedure: “This important bill will ensure that every Texas woman seeking an abortion has all the facts about the life she is carrying, and understands the devastating impact of such a life-changing decision.”
For a governor who once ordered teenage girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease and who helped Susan Combs in her crackdown on sugar at school, what’s one more government intrusion into the personal lives and the tough decisions of Texans?
Freedom, apparently, remains subject to the whims of our politicians. It’s too bad the nanny-state debate cannot always be as sweet as Sarah Palin’s cookies.
By R.G. RATCLIFFE