New Year ushers in new laws

 

As partygoers count down the seconds toward New Year's Day, not everyone will be celebrating; in fact, life is about to get tougher for Arizona's illegal immigrants and the people that hire them. That's because if businesses are found to knowingly hire undocumented workers, they could lose their licenses - amounting to a death penalty for the business.

Arizona's law is one of the most controversial of hundreds of new laws that take effect on Jan. 1. At least 31 states will enforce new laws starting then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. So as you ring in the New Year, expect some facet of life to change, ranging from where you can smoke in Illinois to how much it costs to enter a strip club in Texas.

Arizona's law is considered the nation's harshest on illegal immigration . Employers there must now check the federal E-Verify database that tracks whether people living in the country are authorized to work. Businesses that violate the law one time could have their licenses suspended for 10 days; a second violation means their license is revoked, essentially putting them out of business.

Another new law takes effect just after the clock strikes midnight - literally. About 20 gay couples who have already registered will gather on the steps of the New Hampshire State House in Concord to enter civil unions , including state Rep. Gail Morrison (D) and her partner. The ceremony will take place "as soon as the New Year bells have completed ringing," Morrison said. "It's because of the change in the law that we will be gathering there."

The law makes New Hampshire the fourth state to o ffer same-sex couples the same state-level rights provided by traditional marriage. The civil union license forms are similar to marriage license forms, except that terms like "bride" and "groom" are absent.

On the other coast, Oregon will become the fifth state to offer domestic partnerships to same-sex couples, giving them the same inheritance, hospital visitation and other legal rights afforded married couples.

Massachusetts set a precedent in July with a first-in-the-nation law that requires every uninsured resident who can afford health care to buy it. Now the state will follow up: Every able resident who still hasn't gotten health insurance by Jan. 1 will not only lose a state income tax exemption, but get slapped with monthly fines.

New York will debut the country's first airline passenger's bill of rights. Spurred by horror stories of passengers sitting on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport without food, water or working bathrooms for up to ten hours during a February ice storm, the state now requires airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air if passengers are stuck in grounded planes for more than three hours. The airlines challenged the law, saying that only the federal government can regulate the industry, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit late December.

Other new laws should have a wider reach. The minimum wage will increase in 14 states, ranging from a 10-cent bump in Montana to a $1.05 surge in Iowa, according to the National Restaurant Association. New Mexico, currently at the federal minimum wage of $5.85, will increase its rate by 65 cents.

On Jan. 1, Illinois smokers will have to head outside for a break, making the state the 22 nd to ban smoking in almost all indoor public places, including bars and restaurants. In California, it will be a crime to smoke in cars where there are children under 18.

A slew of driving safety laws will take effect, many of them aimed at the younger set. Kansas teens can now be fined for not wearing seat belts, Illinois parents can get online access to their teens' driving records, and Oregon's under-18 drivers cannot use cell phones while driving. In Washington, everyone will be banned from sending text messages via cell phone while driving.

Several criminal justice laws will also kick off:

  • In Texas, current and future school employees, including teachers, will have to undergo criminal fingerprint checks.
  • Illinois will suspend its two-year statute of limitations for rape in civil cases if the victim can prove he or she was intimidated into not reporting the crime. The law stems from a woman's failed case against the late soul singer James Brown.
  • In Arizona, convicted felons already must submit DNA to a national database, but after Jan. 1, suspects for violent crimes and some sex crimes and burglaries will also have to submit DNA.
  • A string of sexual assaults by men disguised as policemen led to a California law requiring uniform stores to ask for police ID before making a sale.
  • Video voyeurism - photographing someone without their permission in places like restrooms, tanning salons or locker rooms - is now a felony in Illinois.
  • Texas will begin levying a $5-per-customer charge at strip clubs - or a "pole tax" - with the proceeds to help rape victims. Club owners charge the tax unfairly links stripping to rape.

The mortgage lending crisis will lead to some changes. As of Jan. 1, California and Colorado mortgage brokers must follow federal lending guidelines, New York loan officers must undergo a criminal check and register with the state, and delinquent Colorado homeowners will have 110 to 125 days to get caught up on payments before their homes are sold, compared to 45 to 60 days previously.

Also on the consumer protection front: Minnesota will be the first state to specifically ban mercury from cosmetics, including mascara and eyeliner.

Oklahoma taxpayers will be able to go to website that will list corporate tax breaks and disclose how the state is spending its money.

Environmental concerns will force Maine retailers to accept used cell phones for recycling; North Carolina businesses that sell alcohol must recycle beverage containers; and Oregon is including fuel-saving guidelines in its drivers manual, which will be included on future tests for new drivers.

Also effective Jan. 1:

  • California will become the third state to prohibit businesses from injecting microchips into employees.
  • American flags sold in Minnesota must be made in America.
  • South Carolina hospitals must show new parents a video about the dangers of shaking infants.
 
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