Maryland’s activist government is progressive to some, an intrusive Mary Poppins to others


Lyndon Snowden (top) and Makisha Thomas empty trash cans on the assembly floor during a lunch break on the last day of the Maryland Assembly on April 7. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The legislative session that Maryland’s General Assembly concluded last week was an example of progressive government in action, leaders of its Democratic majority say, with lawmakers increasing the minimum wage, passing civil rights protections for transgender people and decriminalizing marijuana in small amounts.

But this year, as in years past, there also was an undercurrent of grumbling — mostly from Republicans — that the Free State is gradually becoming less so.

With a slew of what they call well-intentioned but annoying attempts to micromanage people’s lives with bans, prohibitions and regulations, these critics say the state’s latest attempt to boldly embrace the future felt more like the smothering clasp of Mary Poppins.

“Where’s this going? Are we going to ban dark chocolate bars now?” wondered Jeff Zellmer, a lobbyist with the Maryland Retailers Association who testified against a bill that would have criminalized the sale of energy drinks to minors. “Criminalizing energy drinks! And down in Judiciary they’re [decriminalizing] pot! What the hell is going on? Next you’re going to have to check IDs at Starbucks.”

The Urban Dictionary defines “nanny state” as a place where intrusive government policies betray an assumption that people in power know best how to protect others from the obvious consequences of their own stupid behavior.

During the 90-day session that ended last Monday, seldom a week went by that some lobbyist or lawmaker wasn’t uttering the phrase in the marble lobbies and committee rooms of Maryland’s State House. Never mind that many of the bills died in committee. Or that some laws decried as nannyish a generation ago are now accepted as common practice.

“It’s pervasive. It’s just this whole kind of thinking that [lawmakers] know better than parents, and they know better than you and I what’s good for us,” House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said. “To me, it boils down to personal responsibility or government responsibility — whose responsibility is it to make all kinds of decisions?”

Szeliga ticked off a list of proposed bills that, for her, define the chivying excesses of liberal government:

A proposal to ban the Vaportini, a candle-powered device that transforms alcohol into a gas so its user can inhale a martini instead of imbibing it (passed); a bill to prohibit the retail sale of Everclear and other brands of highly concentrated grain alcohol (passed); legislation forbidding fast-food restaurants and other such outlets from serving any beverage except bottled water or low-fat milk with packaged meals such as McDonald’s Happy Meal (died in committee); a proposed ban on the sale of highly caffeinated energy drinks, such as Red Bull and Monster Energy, to minors (died in committee); a proposal to ban electronic cigarettes (died in committee) and bills to extend smoking bans to parks, public playgrounds, vehicles with a child present— and even private dwellings by allowing condominium associations to impose bans — (all of those died in committee).

Another bill, Szeliga said, seemed almost literally a nanny bill: HB1276 — which passed — generally requires day-care centers to serve only low-fat or skim milk and promote limits on how much television children can watch.

She was especially incensed by an unsuccessful proposal to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students — regardless of their families’ income — in public schools with high levels of poverty.

“I’m the big bad wolf because, you know what, I don’t want you feeding my kids,” Szeliga said. “Fifty years ago, if you had had this conversation, parents would have been aghast. But what are we doing? We are warming up kids from age 5 to accept government handouts.”

But one person’s nanny state is another’s progressive government.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said that many a regulation that comes in for ridicule when first proposed is later accepted as a forward-thinking and common-sense policy. Mandating the installation and use of seat belts, for example. Or banning smoking in restaurants and other public places because of secondhand smoke. In those cases, progressives embraced cutting-edge science and imposed sensible rules that most people now embrace, he said.

“Once upon a time, here people were smoking in the lobbies and smoking in planes and everywhere you went,” Zirkin said. “And then the science caught up, and the science showed you how dangerous it was, not just for the person who was smoking but for everybody else sitting around him. So when science catches up with an issue, that’s the job of a legislature to move.”

That’s why Zirkin does not regret introducing legislation last year to prohibit smoking in a vehicle when a child is present. It passed the Senate but perished in a House committee. Zirkin thinks that eventually the prohibition will pass, although similar legislation — introduced this year by Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery) and Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George’s) — also died in committee.

Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the Happy Meal bill, said that as a member of the Health and Government Operations Committee, she has seen how much the state spends on health care treating problems related to obesity. Asking restaurants to find alternatives to soda in children’s meals seems like a small price to pay, she said.

“It’s the same reason we have to pass a law that requires people to put child seats in cars. It’s the same reason we have to pass a law that requires people to wear a helmet when they ride a bike or they ride a motorcycle. People don’t do it even though it’s common sense,” Peña-Melnyk said.

Subway, Chipotle, Arby’s, Panera and McDonald’s already are taking steps to make children’s meals more nutritious, which includes making healthy drinks the default choice for such orders, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said.

Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), founder and former executive director of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland, said the bills that have drawn nanny-state accusations were not the bills that were the main focus of the legislative session. He said conservative Republicans were driving the criticism because they were not successful in engaging voters on other issues.

“Vaportinis and Everclear and Happy Meals did not occupy much time of the General Assembly this year,” Hucker said. “They’re boutique issues that are not on the minds of voters. What issues are on the minds of voters and broadly enjoy overwhelming support such as broadening protections for the environment, supporting working families and addressing the achievement gap in schools.”

And the passions run just as strong both ways. Outside the committee hearing on energy drinks, beverage lobbyists were muttering about governmental excess while Barnes, the Prince George’s Democrat, was fuming over testimony from experts hired by the beverage industry that dismissed any risks from the drinks.

“It’s galling,” Barnes said.

And he had no patience for criticism from the bill’s opponents that the proposed ban was reflective of a nanny-state mentality. That’s a criticism that he said usually comes from “the far right.”

“I think there are some on the far left who feel we don’t go far enough,” Barnes said.

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