SACRAMENTO — Ban parents from spanking their toddlers. Force restaurants to disclose calories on menus. Forbid school cafeterias from cooking with trans fats. Prohibit smoking on state beaches. Make homeowners switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.

Legislators who have proposed these measures, mostly Democrats, seem to be on a tear in recent weeks, telling Californians, "Hey, we know what's best for you — and we're going to make sure you do it."

But enough already, say opponents, mostly Republicans, who are increasingly railing against what they call "frivolous" proposals and embracing a term often repeated in the Capitol this legislative session: Nanny government.

"Some people in that building believe we should have more government nose wipers running around, intervening in every possible situation they can," said Doug LaMalfa, a Republican assemblyman who represents extreme Northern California and is a frequentuser of the "nanny government" slogan.

Not that he denounces the authors' good intentions, LaMalfa said, but still ...

"When you talk to people out here in the district, they just look at you," LaMalfa said, and make a noise that suggests, "'What's going on down there?'"

What's going on is not unusual for an Assembly and Senate controlled by Democrats, many of them with a leftward bent, who worry that if constituents are left to their own devices, they won't make the right decisions.

California has seen this before. The Legislature in the 1980s made motorcyclists wear helmets and car occupants use seat belts, laws that undoubtedly have saved thousands of lives.

But many people, especially Libertarians, think of it as government run amok.

"Unfortunately, politicians believe they can run your life better than you can," said Aaron Starr, chairman of the California Libertarian Party. "They're a bunch of busybodies. They should all do a us a favor and go home."

But the purveyors of so-called nanny government would like the public to consider another question: What's wrong with making the state a better, safer place to live?

"I guess the government is trying to be the nanny, or the parent, or the supervisor," acknowledged Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, author of legislation to ban the sale of energy-hogging incandescent light bulbs. "And you know what? Sometimes the nanny is right, sometimes the parents are right — oftentimes the parents are right."

Actually, some of the measures are meant to protect children from their parents, such as the anti-spanking proposal and another that would prohibit parents from smoking in cars where kids are present.

Some of the measures are meant to help people eat right, such as the bills to require chain restaurants to display the calorie content of meals and the one to ban trans fats from restaurants and school cafeterias.

There are measures meant to protect the environment, such as Levine's light bulb bill, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions by pushing people to use compact fluorescent bulbs.

All of the measures irk Republicans in ways that few other kinds of bills could.

"If somebody wants to go ahead and choose to do something that may not always be in their best interest, hey, this is America, you get to choose those things," said Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster.

The bills that bug him most: calorie counting in restaurants, and two measures from last year, the one that bars pet owners from tethering their dogs to trees, and one that will make it illegal beginning July 1, 2008, to drive with a cell phone pegged to the ear.

"If we're going (to) try to keep people safe all the time," Runner said, tongue-in-cheek, "then we ought to pass laws requiring them to wear helmets, safety goggles and shoulder pads."

Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, won't go that far.

He introduced the hands-free cell phone bill last year for one simple reason: to save lives. Drivers who chat on cell phones stuck to the ear are likelier to crash than those who use tiny listening devices stuck in their ears, he said, citing California Highway Patrol statistics. 

"The cell phone bill was very clearly based on the concern of the well-being of the general public," Simitian said. "It's not just themselves they put at risk but everyone else out on the road."

Same goes with drunken driving laws, Simitian said, which are often backed by Republican legislators.

"At some point our personal liberties bump into the need to keep the public safe," Simitian said, "and that's the balance we have to strike."

The term "nanny government" has been around for decades or longer. It is believed to have originated in Britain, and despite the wishes of some it's not about to fade away in California.

"It's annoying, it's frustrating, and I think it's irresponsible; they've reduced this to sound bite politics," complained Levine, the light bulb legislator. "To me it's not responsible government to say 'nanny government.'"

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of "Talking Right," credits Republicans with effectively using the phrase to make a point that appeals to the party's conservative base.

"It does everything the right wants it to do," said Nunberg. "It suggests these measures are not just officious meddling but there's something unmanly about them. It's the old story: The Republicans are the daddy party, and the Democrats are the mommy party."

Nunberg — whose book is subtitled, "How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show" — said nanny government is a part of a larger campaign, a piece of a much broader kind of rhetoric that dates back to Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Contact Edwin Garcia at egarcia@mercurynews.com or (916) 441-4651.