More state laws to govern life's minutiae

Breath mints are no longer food in Ohio. Soda is banned from California schools. No cellphones for N.J. drivers.

The flood of new mandates that went into effect this month across the nation prompted one California assemblyman to declare the arrival of a "nanny government" - legislation that replaces the responsibility of parents and common sense to protect the well-being of citizens.

Drivers in New Jersey can no longer talk on cellphones. Dangerous dogs in Colorado must wear microchips at their owner's expense. California junior high students have to wait until after they leave school grounds if they want to drink soda.

But political analysts say that taken en masse, the new laws are a revealing reflection of the day-to-day concerns of Americans trying to cope with the kaleidoscopic permutations of life in the new millennium.

"If you look down this list, you see that state legislatures are trying to tackle the key issues that citizens are struggling with in their lives," says Tim Storey, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "It's part of the whole grand notion that the states are laboratories of democracy."

Not every new law is about restrictions. New Georgia laws allow the sale of certain beers with alcohol exceeding 6 percent. Ohio joins more than 50 percent of states allowing liquor sales on Sunday. And New Jersey has expanded states rights for gay couples with a domestic partnership law giving such couples the right to file joint tax returns and make medical choices for each other.

Likewise, several new laws are intended to ratchet up voters' trust in the political system. South Dakota has created a Constitutional Revision Commission to scrutinize the balance of power at the capital. A new Connecticut law bans the use of campaign funds for personal benefit. In Florida, political candidates and their supporters must clearly delineate who has created and paid for ads - including bumper stickers, fliers, and yard signs.

California made history last week with the nation's first family leave law. Workers can take up to six weeks of paid leave in a 12-month period to care for newborn children or seriously ill relatives. Pay, ranging from $50 to $728 per week, is to be funded by the state's disability insurance fund.

"California's new family leave act is one of the nation's most-watched laws kicking in," says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna University.

But the state chamber of commerce has already expressed concerns that the fund could go broke in the first 12 months. "There are very legitimate concerns about the economic impact of family leave, despite the fact that is politically very popular," says Mr. Pitney.

How the law is structured points up a trend Pitney and others are recognizing in this year's laws, which are coming at the end of tight times.

"The high numbers of mandates we are seeing passed by legislatures show they are easier to pass than spending programs at the moment," says Pitney. "The costs don't fall on state treasuries but rather on state businesses."

Implementing and enforcing the new laws will take time, as citizens and law-enforcement officers become familiar with the regulations - and the fines that come with them. Drivers who are caught using cellphones while driving in New Jersey will be fined $250.

"There are so many new laws at so many levels of government that no one can possibly keep track of them all," says Pitney. "The fallout is often confusion. It's great for keeping lawyers busy, but not so much for the overall economy."

Although effective dates of various legislation across the nation will take place throughout the year, a significant number measures took effect July 1:

• Iowa residents can purchase only two packages of cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

• Mississippi healthcare facilities can refuse to perform abortions.

• Colorado has outlawed the use of cellphones that take photos in dressing rooms and restrooms. The state has also made it a felony to pose as a police officer and has lowered the blood-alcohol limit to .08 percent for drivers.

• Georgia teachers whose students show significant improvement on state tests are eligible for a 5 percent pay raise. State residents ages 5 or under must be placed in car booster seats.

• Michigan has increased the cigarette tax from $1.25 to $2 per pack.

• Ohio has changed the definition of food to exempt breath mints, bottled water, and ice from tax.

"State legislatures are the forum for America's ideas, where public-policy ideas are first crafted, debated, and enacted," says NCSL spokesman Gene Rose. "This year state legislatures were forced to address complex issues with limited financial resources. Public safety and consumer protection are significant themes of measures passed this year."

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