States' Hottest Laws Take on New Threats
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
The mosaic of laws passed by state legislatures this year reveals a country grappling with threats, from a faltering economy and record-high gasoline prices to global warming and lead-tainted toys from China.
In a year of tightening finances for all but about a dozen agricultural and energy states, Stateline.org 's review of 39 of the 46 states where legislators met this year shows caution when it comes to new spending but turns up some new approaches to common problems.
Among states passing first-in-the-nation laws that could become models for others, New York sought to boost its finances by collecting sales taxes from online retailers such as Amazon.com. Iowa and Colorado became the first to garnish the casino winnings of deadbeats who owe child support or back taxes. And Wyoming took a unique first step toward fighting global warming, by clearing the way for polluters to bury carbon dioxide and other combustion gases that are blamed for climate change.
One-of-a-kind circumstances led to unusual legislation. A drought in Atlanta pushed Georgia legislators to reopen a 190-year-old border dispute with Tennessee over access to the Tennessee River. The space shuttle's upcoming retirement in 2010 prompted Florida, where the shuttle is launched, to offer a $40 million prize to any company that can beat NASA's plans for a replacement space vehicle in 2015. Minnesota legislators, hoping to boost local businesses, agreed to let bars stay open until 4 a.m. during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September.
Lawmakers around the country often used similar tactics to address common problems. Car crashes kill more than 5,000 teenagers a year, the leading cause of death for that age group. In response, five states slapped new restrictions on teenage drivers this spring, leaving only Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota without special rules for new drivers.
The following rundown provides a mid-year snapshot of the groundbreaking measures and policymaking trends emerging from state legislatures to date. For further analysis of the important developments in this year's legislative sessions, see "Sour economy limits state options in '08" and Stateline.org 's exclusive state-by-state summaries of 2008 legislative actions.
Besides New York's new Internet sales tax, which is being challenged by bookseller Amazon.com, states ventured into new territory on a variety of issues.
- Health insurance will be required for all kids in New Jersey. The first-of-its-kind statute imposes the same type of mandatory coverage that Massachusetts' landmark health-care law requires of adults. A key difference is that New Jersey won't punish families who don't comply.
- Cigarette taxes, increasingly used to raise state revenues, jumped by $1.25 a pack to $2.75 in New York, the highest in the nation. Massachusetts also upped its tax - by $1 a pack for a total of $2.51.
- Movie makers now qualify for 40 percent rebates on what they spend making films in Michigan, the most generous incentives in an ever-escalating competition among states to attract film projects.
- Online scalpers no longer can use security-skirting software to make bulk ticket purchases in Colorado, Minnesota and Tennessee. The states cracked down after customers complained they couldn't buy tickets for Hannah Montana concerts and World Series baseball games.
- Novelty lighters designed to look like toys can't be sold in Maine, an action held up as a model by the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
- Sex offenders, who in many states already must register their addresses, also must register their e-mail addresses and online user names with law enforcement under groundbreaking Indiana and Tennessee laws.
- "I Believe" license plates displaying a Christian cross were approved for purchase in South Carolina, sparking a church-state court challenge.
- Solar water heaters for the first time will be required in homes built after 2010 in Hawaii, where sun is plentiful but fossil fuels are not.
Widespread problems such as mortgage foreclosures, metal theft and illegal immigration drove legislative initiatives across several states.
- Record numbers of home foreclosures prompted 29 states to rewrite their mortgage laws. New York and Virginia ordered lenders to give delinquent homeowners extra time before foreclosing; four states made mortgage fraud a specific crime; and seven states passed laws to curb mortgage-rescue scams.
- Autistic children won greater coverage under new requirements on private health insurers approved in Arizona, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida. They joined 12 other states that order insurers to pick up the tab for autism treatments .
- Toxins in toys - such as lead, phthalates, bisphenol-a, and cadmium - were outlawed in Oregon and Washington state. California, Michigan and New Jersey enacted prohibitions last year.
- Health worries over childhood obesity led at least five states - Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia - to boost the time school kids must spend either at recess or in gym class.
- Smoking bans passed in Iowa, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, making 28 states that prohibit smoking in public places. The strictest dozen states now prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants, casinos and workplaces.
- Great Lakes water received new protections under a compact approved by Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which want to keep the water for themselves. Congress must approve the pact before it takes effect.
- Increased energy-efficiency standards for government buildings passed in 11 states, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.
- An apology for slavery cleared the Florida Legislature, making Florida the sixth state to express regrets. Florida also eliminated offensive language about African Americans in its state song.
- Illegal immigrants no longer can get driver's licenses in Oregon, Michigan and Maine, leaving only four states that still allow licenses for illegal immigrants.
- The federal Real ID law , an effort to make driver's licenses more secure nationwide, remained unpopular among states because of its cost. This year, Arizona and Louisiana refused to comply with the law, making 11 states that have rejected it.
- Drivers can keep guns in their cars in eight states, even on private property where guns are banned. Florida and Georgia added the protections this year.
- "Castle laws" that protect homeowners from prosecution if they shoot an intruder are on the law books in 22 states, with Wyoming becoming the latest.
- A sudden surge in metal theft prompted increased penalties in 28 states over the last two years for stealing metal, especially kegs, according to the Beer Institute , an industry group.
- More criminals and arrestees will have their DNA collected in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, South Dakota, Utah and Washington, according to DNAResource.com , which tracks DNA-related legislation.
- Dog fighting carries felony penalties for organizers in every state, now that Idaho and Wyoming increased their punishments.
- Private school vouchers and tuition tax credits gained ground in Louisiana and Georgia, two of 14 states to help families defray private education costs. But Arizona lawmakers nixed all funding for its voucher program, which is under review by the state supreme court.