New Laws Take Effect Across the Nation

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Bird flu worries are roiling states up North, school bullies are being targeted out West, and tax breaks are coming from West Virginia to Wyoming.

New laws taking effect Saturday offer a glimpse at the domestic challenges facing the nation, and the answers its state lawmakers offer in response. July 1 is the effective date in many states for laws crafted during this year's legislative sessions. In others, laws take effect Jan. 1, or 90 days after passage.

Some laws aim to encourage, like South Carolina's $300 sales tax rebates for hybrid, biodiesel and ethanol blend-driven cars.

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Others hope to teach a certain point of view: Sex education teachers in Wisconsin now must present abstinence as the best way for unmarried people to prevent pregnancy and disease, though they can still mention contraception.

Others measures reflect widespread concerns, with at least a half-dozen states passing tougher laws to punish or track sex offenders. Idaho can pass along offenders' names and addresses to radio stations; South Carolina can now execute twice-convicted rapists of children younger than 11; Nevada will put offenders' addresses, work and school locations on the Web.

Nevada needs tougher laws, said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, because it has become a "haven for perverts," created by the combination of a transient population, weak penalties and poorly funded law enforcement.

Fears of a possible bird flu pandemic have spurred some states to action. Minnesota health officials got an extra $5 million to prepare, while Nebraska set up a testing and surveillance program. Alaska, full of pathways for migrating birds who are considered likely to carry the disease, gave more power to state officials to quarantine and test animals.

"We know today's diseases cross the boundaries between wild animals, domesticated animals and people," Alaska State Veterinarian Bob Gerlach said.

In education, bullies continued to get a hard look. Nevada ordered its schools to create a uniform system of reporting bullying, with the state ACLU lobbyist warning that it is a critical problem for immigrant children, particularly Muslim girls who wear headscarves.

Idaho gave school superintendents, principals and teachers more power to suspend bullies. "There are studies that indicate that bullying is the leading cause of teenage suicide," said Republican state Sen. Mike Jorgenson.

Taxes remained, as always, a top concern.

Tax breaks won support this year, including a change in Nevada that sharply reduces the property taxes for golf courses. The new law drops the value to about $1,000 an acre, as much as one-tenth of what some of the fancier courses had paid.

West Virginia cut taxes for farm equipment, vehicles, crops and livestock that's estimated to save farmers overall about $850,000 a year. And in Wyoming, lawmakers agreed to a two-year repeal of the state sales tax on groceries, though supporters hope to get a permanent repeal.

The biggest challenge, said Wyoming tax administrator Dan Noble, was trying to figure out the tax on ice. The compromise was to consider crushed and cubed ice as groceries and make it tax-free, but continue to tax block ice and dry ice, since that's not so likely to be a personal use, he said.

Elsewhere, states gave their employees raises (in North Dakota and West Virginia) and boosted their pensions (in Maryland).

In Oregon, popular allergy medicines containing the decongestant pseudoephedrine will now require a prescription — a step aimed at limiting the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Hawaii started a pilot project to provide health insurance for all the state's roughly 6,000 children who don't have any. The cost of $3 million will be split by the state and the Hawaii Medical Service Association.

One of this year's hot issues — immigration — got emotional in Nebraska, when legislators overrode Republican Gov. Dave Heineman's veto, now allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition at state schools, if they lived in Nebraska for three years and graduated from a state high school.

"It's about treating these students just like other students who graduate high school in Nebraska," said Sen. DiAnna Schimek, who had spent five years working to get the law passed.

Florida jumped into another of today's top stories, banning public colleges from sponsoring travel to federally designated terrorist states — Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. The law has already been challenged in court.

Several states reached out to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wisconsin gave free state college tuition to dependents of veterans who died of a service-related disability. Veterans, come 2007, will get free tuition too. New Hampshire state employees in the National Guard get state benefits while on active duty, and the state will cover the difference between their state and military salaries.

And now in Florida, dogs can eat with their owners at restaurants under the new "Doggie Dining" law (but only in designated outdoor areas and if approved by local authorities).

Gov. Jeb Bush — whose own dog, a black lab named Marvin, had died just two days before — gladly signed the bill into law, saying dog lovers and their pets should "have a brewski together, have a hot dog together or whatever they want outdoors. ... It just seems like it's a small thing but it's going to be an important thing."