New year, new laws: Watch it with that burger!

Across the US, local codes deal with moldy homes, date-rape drugs, and kids - or even hamburgers - in cars.

Pennsylvania drivers who carry loaded paintball guns are now outside the law. South Carolinians who like to dress up as sheriff will now serve jail time, if caught. And citizens who eat a burger while driving will drive police around the bend in North Bend, Wash., and earn fines of $300.

While many people toasted the new year with resolutions they've already broken, states have begun enforcing arcane new laws that citizens can no longer break without legal consequence.

Some may seem quirky, even comical, but the new local and state laws of 2002 provide a road map to much of what is on the minds of common Americans and the legislators that they have elected to do their bidding.

This year, health and personal safety top an issue list that ranges from gay rights to gambling, taxes to beaver traps.

"At the local and state level, we are seeing all the key trends that have hit the radar in recent years and will continue to be at issue both in Congress and in the states," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Taxes always become a hot topic during economic hard times, as states struggle to balance recession-battered budgets. But this year also saw a range of other issues coming to the fore:

Health and safety. These perennial concerns were evident in wide-ranging new ways.

• Nine states now say it's not OK to leave kids alone in cars. The states are Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

• California will now let pharmacists provide women with emergency contraceptives, the so-called "morning-after pill," without a prescription.

• Another new Golden State law requires home-sellers and landlords to disclose the presence of mold in buildings.

• Oregon legislators passed tough penalties on date-rape drugs. Any person who knowingly gets another person to consume such a substance can get 10 years in prison and a $200,000 fine - 20 years if done with intent to commit rape or violence.

• In Alaska, convicted felons must pay cash to victims.

• Several states, including California and Oregon, set tougher child-seat laws, and several communities are instituting cellphone restrictions for drivers.

"People here simply felt that driving a car while talking on a hand-held cell phone was not safe," says Juan Rios, spokesman for Santa Fe, N.M., one of several cities to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving. (New York became the first state to pass such a ban on Nov. 1.)

Election reform. The events of Sept. 11 slowed the efforts of several states to push through meaningful reform, stalling the work of committees set up to study the issue. But Florida, site of the 2000 presidential election fiasco, has led the way with moves to bar punch cards and set recount standards.

"Florida's lead has assured that this issue will continue to percolate into action elsewhere," says political scientist Mr. Schier.

Gay rights. Same-sex couples in California can now make medical decisions for a hospitalized domestic partner or sue for a partner's wrongful death. The law may indirectly add momentum to the movement for gay marriage, in the wake of civil union laws passed by Vermont last year.

"This advances the steady, national conversation on the rights of millions of gay Americans," says Jenny Pizer, spokeswoman for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents gays and lesbians. She says the California law covers only about a dozen of the protections given to conventional married couples, while Vermont and Hawaii cover many more.

Economy and taxes. The slowing US economy was behind the efforts of some states to institute tax changes or revenue-raising measures.

South Carolina has instituted a new lottery - with prizes up to $100,000 - while in West Virginia video poker is now legal and regulated, providing money for college scholarships. (But not every state is continuing the gambling trend: Georgia's video-poker operators must turn off their machines because of a ban approved by lawmakers last September.

Washington State, strapped by Boeing layoffs and a $1.2 billion deficit, initiated the highest cigarette tax in the country: $1.42 per pack, a 60 percent increase.

State budget director Marty Brown says the tax hike will help provide health insurance for low-income individuals. "Our existing health service program to insure poorer individuals was always there, but underfunded," Mr. Brown says. The new tax should insure 133,000 more people than previously, he says, unless consumers turn to untaxed Indian reservations and military installations for their cigarettes.

Concerns about falling revenues are behind other moves by states and cities to hunker down for 2002 and beyond. Many have set the groundwork for budget-cutting into the new year. Many states are looking to redefine tax structures or simplify sales taxes.

"With the economy going down by most indications at least for a while, states are responding," says Gene Rose, spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "This is the one big issue to straddle the New Year."

Other actions. New state laws address a gamut of other concerns:

• In Michigan, all felons will have DNA testing in case it might prove their innocence.

• Texans can pay $2.25 to get on a state "no call" list aimed at stopping unsolicited sales calls at home.

• As the US Congress considers a minimum-wage hike, Hawaiian employers will now pay at least $5.75 an hour.

• In Oregon, hunters who set traps for beavers, foxes and other animals will have to check them at least once every two days.

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