New Year Brings in New State Laws

The new year will dawn with an array of state laws taking effect across the country, offering a snapshot of issues that matter to Americans — from identity theft and sex offenders to dangers on the road.

Perennial challenges such as taxes and health care crop up among the new measures, as do steps to improve elections and enforce ethical behavior among politicians. Newer issues are being raised, too, including an Illinois law that targets human trafficking.

Legislation approved in 2005 formally becomes law in many states on New Year's Day (though some measures take effect upon a governors' signature, or July 1).

This year, several states will take action to guard against the theft and misuse of personal information as more and more commerce moves to the Internet; several companies admitted in 2005 that hackers got into their supposedly secure databases. New Jersey and Virginia will bar making public a person's Social Security number, while Minnesota will require businesses that hold such information to quickly notify clients if there is a breach of security.

After several high-profile sexual assaults against children, many states are placing more restrictions on offenders. Michigan, for one, will now demand background checks of just about anyone working at schools, and it will ban convicted sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of a school, or even loitering in the vicinity.

Florida is taking steps to limit the influence of lobbyists, barring them from paying for any food, alcohol or gifts for lawmakers and other state and local officials. The state also is adding a slew of new reporting requirements for lobbyists.

"Just pay for your own stuff," said state Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Democrat. "It's as simple as that." Still, legislators left a loophole in the law, dropping language that would have barred lobbyists from giving money to political parties so they could, in turn, use it to pay for lawmakers' food and drink.

Legislatures sought ways to improve safety on the highways, demanding seat belt use in taxis and shuttle vans in Oregon, requiring motorists hogging the left lane to move to the right in Florida, and trying to discourage drunk driving in Tennessee by requiring that offenders help clean up state highways while wearing vests emblazoned with the phrase "I am a Drunk Driver" in 4-inch lettering.

In California, paparazzi — photographers who chase celebrities for lucrative snapshots — could be hit with hefty civil penalties if they commit assaults. Victims can seek punitive damages and income earned from the pictures involved. An incident in which police said actress Lindsay Lohan's car was rammed by a photographer's van spurred the law.

Taxes drew lawmakers' attention, too. Oklahoma cut taxes for nearly everyone, and New York cut them for those making more than $150,000 a year. Florida cut taxes on stocks and bonds. Nevada gave a tax break to property owners, while West Virginia lowered its tax on food from six cents per dollar to five cents.

Health care, too, continued to challenge legislatures. Missouri created a state prescription drug program for lower-income seniors to pick up costs not covered by the new federal Medicare prescription plan. Nevada now requires insurance companies to cover cancer patients participating in the earliest phase of clinical trials. Wisconsin lawmakers expanded the state's health care program for the working poor to provide prenatal care and delivery services to illegal immigrants and inmates.

Human trafficking, though already a federal crime, is being outlawed in Illinois. A state law would ensure the practice is prosecuted even if federal authorities don't have the time or resources, said state Sen. John Cullerton, a Democrat.

"It's horrible to think that human beings can use other human beings in this way," said Jennifer Cacciapaglia, assistant city attorney in Rockford, Ill. She said investigators found evidence that Asian women and girls were likely smuggled into the country for prostitution and lived in brothels operating as health spas in her area.

Complaints about illegal immigrants spurred a new Virginia law that will make such people ineligible for state or local benefits such as welfare or health care. Some illegal aliens, however, could still receive benefits from Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.

And in Missouri, complaints about homeowners' associations overly broad powers brought a law that requires associations to delete "restrictive covenant" policies that discriminate by race or religion. There had been accusations that such language remained in the laws of some associations in the Kansas City area.

Not all laws were so serious. Illinois approved a state amphibian, the Eastern tiger salamander, after it won 51 percent of Internet voters, beating the gray tree frog and the American toad. "The toad and the frog kind of split up the vote and allowed the salamander to slip in," Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said.