The Ball Drops Here: New Laws for '07
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
(Updated 3:53 p.m. EST, Dec. 20, 2006)
After the ball drops in Times Square, California public colleges no longer will be able to censor their student journalists, Missouri will end all limits on campaign contributions and Ohio pet owners will be able to set up trust funds for their furry and feathered friends.
On Jan. 1, a host of new state laws will take effect in at least 32 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Minimum wage laws likely will have the greatest reach. On New Year's Day, 18 states will raise their rates, with seven raising it above the $5.15 federal minimum for the first time. That brings the total number of states with wages above the federal minimum to 29.
This year's fierce immigration debate has led to a tough new law in Colorado, where employers will have to verify new workers' identification in 2007 to ensure they aren't illegal immigrants. Employers also must retain copies of the documents they've checked.
A few lobbying laws also will be implemented. On Jan.1, Pennsylvania ends its status as the only state without a lobbyist disclosure law, requiring lobbyists to make quarterly reports about how they spend their dollars.
North Carolina has also tightened ethics laws, restricting gifts to lawmakers, requiring more disclosure from lobbyists and banning them from making personal donations to candidates' campaigns. The state's new laws were a response to several fundraising and lobbying scandals involving the office of then-House Speaker Jim Black (D), whose office is the focus of a federal investigation.
On New Year's Day, Missouri will have no more limits on campaign contributions, although state legislators and statewide officials cannot accept contributions while the General Assembly is in session.
But the legislative session doesn't start until noon on Jan. 3, giving lawmakers a 60-hour window to solicit all the contributions they want. Gov. Matt Blunt (R), fearful of the "fund-raising frenzy" that could explode, issued a statement last month asking lawmakers to refrain from accepting contributions higher than the current limits, and promised to do the same.
California will have several groundbreaking laws take effect Jan. 1. In September, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed the country's toughest measure to cut smokestack emissions blamed for global warming. The state's goal is to reduce them 25 percent by 2020.
The state also passed the country's first-in-the-nation law to protect student journalists from censorship by public colleges or universities, and gave principals at poor schools the power to reject bad teachers trying to transfer in, a process that has been referred to as "the dance of the lemons" and "passing the trash."
By Jan. 1, every house and apartment in Illinois must have a carbon monoxide detector, restaurant patrons will be permitted to bring home opened bottles of wine, and doctors will be able to begin preserving the organs of corpses for transplant purposes before the patient's wishes are known or familial consent is determined.
In the new year it also will become tougher for local governments to seize land for economic development in Florida, Illinois and Iowa, as the three states' new eminent domain laws take effect.
Beginning in 2007, gift cards in Kansas will have to be good for at least five years.
The location of illegal methamphetamine labs in Michigan soon will be posted online by the Department of Community Health and the police, while those arrested for a felony in New Mexico will have to provide a DNA sample that will be entered into a DNA identification database to help solve crimes.
Privacy concerns led to crackdowns in two states on the use of Social Security numbers. In Arkansas , it will be illegal to display the number or require someone to send it over the Internet (unless the information is encrypted). Maryland employers cannot print any part of their employees' Social Security Numbers on the paycheck or stub.
Meanwhile, identity thieves in eight states - Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin - will find it harder to defraud victims because new "security freeze" laws would ensure thieves cannot open new accounts under victims' names. By Jan. 1, 26 states will have such a law, according to the consumer advocate group, Consumers Union .
Others who will be on notice in 2007:
- Schoolyard bullies in South Carolina will face tougher tactics. The state will require every school district to expand anti-bullying policies to protect students not just from physical harm, but also from cell-phone and e-mail harassment.
- Musical copycats in Illinois will have to sing a different tune. Bands no longer will be able to use the same name as a classic band unless at least one of the band's original members is in the ensemble.
- Illinois inmates with self-inflicted injuries will have to pay their own medical bills. The law was inspired by a Menard County criminal who killed his father and then shot himself in the face with a rifle, leaving the county with the bill.
- Smokers will see further setbacks. With the addition of Louisiana, smokers in 21 states will face a statewide smoking ban - although Louisiana's ban excludes bars - according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights . In South Dakota and Texas, the state tax on cigarettes is scheduled to increase by a dollar on Jan. 1.
- Louisiana spouses who are seeking a divorce will have to wait a year, or twice as long as the previous waiting time, before a divorce is granted if they have young children.
- Sex offenders in Michigan and Pennsylvania will be subject to additional monitoring or punishment. Michigan's citizens will be able to sign up for e-mail announcements when a sex offender moves into their zip code, while Pennsylvania sex offenders could have their property confiscated if it was used to commit the offense. For example, a sex offender could lose his house if it was used to entice victims.
Meanwhile, life should get easier for some:
- New York's autism patients no longer will be subject to discrimination by insurance companies. In the past, companies could refuse to cover their treatment.
- Pistol-packing judges in Kansas will be able to carry concealed weapons into their courtrooms.
- Debtors in New Hampshire - where the state motto is "Live Free or Die" - can no longer be subject to peonage, or holding a person in servitude or partial slavery to work off a debt.
- Pets can live the high life in 35 states, even after their owners die. Ohio will become the 35 th state where pet owners can establish trust funds for their pets in the event the owner dies or becomes incapacitated, according to The Humane Society . And in California, owners will be prohibited from tethering their dogs to stationary objects for more than three hours.
- Long-term tenants in California will gain the right to 60 days' notice - double the previous period - from landlords who want to evict them.
A few states will fall in line with their peers in the new year. Alabama, the last state without any protections for its tenants, also is increasing tenants' rights by spelling out landlords' basic obligations to provide safe, habitable housing for their tenants. The law also makes it easier for landlords to evict bad tenants.
Massachusetts will become the 50th state to require new hunters to pass a hunter-safety course before receiving a license.
Nebraska and Kansas have jumped on the concealed-weapons bandwagon, leaving Wisconsin and Illinois as the only two states with laws prohibiting concealed weapons. Nebraskans will be able to apply for permits on Jan. 2 (because New Year's is a holiday) and in Kansas, where the law took effect July 1, citizens will start receiving permits Jan. 1.
Colorado and Georgia will begin honoring the families of soldiers who died in action with special license plates. Georgia 's plate will say, "Gold Star Family," while Colorado 's inscription will read, "Fallen.