New Laws for a New Year

New Year's Day brings more than resolutions, hangovers and football games - Florida gets revamped elections and Washington state sees new limits on tax increases, while attempts to improve health care begin in Colorado, Rhode Island and elsewhere.

When 2002 arrives Tuesday, so will many new state laws - like tougher drinking laws in New Hampshire and Alabama, and Oregon's ban on smoking in most workplaces.

Some measures only won approval after a long and loud debate, such as a sweeping new gay rights law in California and a lottery in South Carolina, where the first scratch-off tickets go on sale Jan. 7.

Many of the new laws take effect Jan. 1; others will be implemented soon after a governor signs legislation already approved by lawmakers, or on July 1, which begins the fiscal year in most states.

This year began with a big push for election reform, but that gave way in many states to study committees. Florida, fittingly, was ahead of the rest with a sweeping change that bars punch cards and sets recount standards. Elsewhere, changes were smaller - like Colorado's law to let the secretary of state upgrade the computer system to combat fraud.

In Washington state, a voter-approved initiative will take effect, capping local governments' property tax growth to 1 percent, unless voters allow a larger increase.

Criminals and other assorted lawbreakers, as always, were the focus of many new laws. Convicted felons in Michigan will get their mouths swabbed for a DNA database; in Alaska, they will have to pay cash to victims of their crimes.

In Oregon, anyone who gets another person to unknowingly consume so-called date rape drugs can get 10 years in prison and a $200,000 fine - 20 years if it's done with intent to commit rape or violence.

Repeat drunk drivers in New Hampshire face tougher penalties: a fourth conviction now will mean up to seven years in prison and at least seven years without a license.

``If you haven't learned by the second or third time, you're not going to be rehabilitated. You're not going to be drinking while in prison and hopefully you're getting treatment,'' said Rep. John Tholl, who is also police chief in Dalton. Alabama targets drunken boaters.

South Carolina cracked down on anyone pretending to be a sheriff. Nonsheriffs or deputies caught wearing a star with the state seal can get a $100 fine or 30 days in jail.

And in Pennsylvania, driving with a loaded paintball gun means jail time or fines. ``Anybody who drives around the streets with a loaded paintball gun is probably up to no good anyhow,'' said Rep. Edward G. Staback. A constituent's Victorian home had been vandalized by someone with a paintball gun.

Driving worries inspired new laws in several states: laws require children 6 and under to be in child seats in Oregon, set tougher teen driving restrictions in Georgia, and ban talking on handheld cell phones in Santa Fe, N.M. (New York's ban, the only statewide law, took effect Nov. 1).

Starting Jan. 1, cell phones and driving will be studied in California, while Oregon made it illegal for local governments to regulate cell phones and driving. In North Bend, Wash., ``inattentive'' drivers - fiddling with the radio, eating a burger - can be fined an extra $300 if they get a ticket.

Health care drew attention from several states, though no single approach dominated.

Colorado's new law lets doctors and hospitals form their own networks to provide health coverage, bypassing insurance companies. Rhode Island mandates increased insurance coverage for mental illness and substance abuse. Florida requires nursing homes to meet minimum staffing care and buy liability insurance for lawsuits. Alaska requires insurers to pay claims within 30 days or explain why.

The new laws also capture society's changing perspectives about once-taboo subjects. New Hampshire will allow adopted children, once they reach 18, to see documents about themselves and their biological parents.

And California will expand domestic partner rights for gay, lesbian and senior partners registered with the secretary of state's office, granting many of the rights now reserved for married couples, such as the ability to make medical decisions for incapacitated partners, adopt a partner's child and will property to partners.

Some 16,000 gay, lesbian and senior partners are now registered.

Vermont is the only state with a formal civil union law. The federal government and 36 states already have measures that refuse to recognize gay marriages.

Smokers will face a ban in most workplaces in Oregon, though smoking will go on in bars and taverns (except in cities with pre-existing bans). In Washington state, through a voters initiative, smokers will pay the highest cigarette tax in the country - $1.42 1/2 cents a pack, a 60-cent increase. (The extra $100 million annually goes to health care and anti-smoking campaigns).

Gambling, too, caught several states' attention.

South Carolina's new lottery, after a year of planning, begins six days after the new year begins, with prizes up to $100,000. In West Virginia, long-popular but illegal video poker machines are now legal and regulated - with some of the money going to pay for college scholarships.

And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a new gambling venture hopes to pay for scholarships for young people in the economically depressed area. The idea? Guess the number of red salmon caught in the fishing season.

The new raffle was inspired by another Alaska-only gamble, where raffle buyers guess when the ice will break on the Tanana River. This year, eight winners split $308,000 after the river ice broke on May 8 at 1 p.m.