By Karen Brooks Harper
Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013, 11:17 pm
Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Call it the new nanny state, as defined by the new Republicans.
A contingent of staunchly conservative freshmen House members are targeting bills they believe expand the powers of government over Texans’ lives too much.
It’s not just helmets and healthy drinks anymore: The group of a dozen or so self-described tea party freshmen and their supporters say the new nanny state aims to reach into all aspects of life, from protecting consumers from bad decisions to superseding parental rights.
“Every time we add a new regulation, a new government program, that field of freedom in which the individual can operate free of government intervention just gets smaller,” said freshman Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler.
“And it’s not being shrunk at the point of a gun; it’s being shrunk at the point of a pen.”
The hit list has included bills that create or expand licensing regulations for trades and professions; assign financial coaches to poor people; create a home-visiting program for at-risk families; ban smoking in the workplace; and prohibit texting while driving.
Their Democratic critics say the same Republicans trumpeting small government also fight gay marriage and abortion-rights initiatives that embody the idea of personal freedoms.
“I find it very ironic,” said Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso.
And beyond the partisan divide, frustrations also run high among more senior House members who say the contingent of tea party freshmen are naive and wildly inconsistent, without a deep enough working knowledge of state government.
Schaefer said the Capitol is too conditioned to pass legislation without thinking about freedoms.
“You come down here and realize that the overwhelming inertia is to pass bills,” Schaefer said. “Somebody accused me of being ‘Dr. No’ in the criminal justice committee. I had my staff go back and tally it up. I had only voted no 25 percent of the time.”
Some of the bills the group opposes are getting traction because freshmen have only so much power to block legislation.
The Senate passed a bill that would allow judges to assign to mentally ill patients a monitor to make sure the person takes his or her medication. The House passed legislation banning minors from using tanning salons even with parental permission.
But the freshmen are fighting the battles even when they lose, and even when the bills are widely popular or sponsored by powerful committee chairmen.
“We talk among ourselves, and we have our staffs talk amongst themselves, and that’s definitely one of the things we always look for,” said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, chairman of the House Freshman Republican Caucus. “Is this government overreach? And if it is, we say no.”
Because their numbers aren’t strong enough yet to flat-out kill bills on the floor, they’re employing other tactics.
They’re registering “no” votes in committee to keep bills from winning unanimous support, which often gives the bills a fast track to passage. They’re flooding big bills with amendments to strip funding or force votes on smaller-government issues.
And they’re rallying some of the more senior members to help them fight what they call an ever-expanding nanny state.
Sixth-term Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, is one of their strongest veteran allies. She said the House Republican majority is anything but conservative.
“Financial nannies, medicine nannies, food nannies, tanning bed nannies, vaccine nannies, nurse nannies, parenting nannies,” Laubenberg said. “You have a lot of folks out here who are good people and well meaning, but they just don’t understand the fundamental principles of the government’s role and individual responsibility.”
Frustrated senior members on both sides of the aisle say the group is politicizing issues that needn’t be, using conservative buzzwords to kill bills of all stripes that don’t fit their own agenda or that are sponsored by political enemies.
Round Rock GOP Rep. Larry Gonzales said he has supported a few of these measures not because he doesn’t believe in small government — but because he wants to protect Texans’ health and safety.
“I believe in an efficient government, but … these bills that they’re referring to often do have a public safety portion to it,” he said.
Gonzales said the group’s inconsistency was “the most difficult part of this session, for me.”
“They don’t want to regulate architects, yet a bill to license elevator operators flies right by, and what’s the difference?” Gonzales said. “That’s frustrating for a lot of members.”
Democrats were angered this week by an amendment by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, that requires universities to allow student club leaders to ban potential members if they don’t believe the student upholds the values of the club. The measure came after the group had spent the day helping strip the Higher Education Coordinating Board of its powers.
“That’s not the role of the coordinating board, and it shouldn’t be a state law,” said Marquez, adding that the freshmen helped create several studies and commissions on the agencies they don’t like. “Their entire mantra when they’re on the campaign trail is less government, less regulation. But when they come up here, they want their imprint on everything.”
Krause defended his provision during House debate as providing an important constitutional protection for student groups, particularly Christian organizations.