From same sex marriage to medical marijuana, states take the lead

States can have more influence on American lives in everything from same sex marriage to medical marijuana because state legislators get along in ways not possible in Washington's political gridlock.

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    Patrons play blackjack at the Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City, Kansas. Gambling is one of six issues where states have taken the lead in governing over Washington, avoiding political gridlock.
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Same-sex marriage/domestic partnerships

Of all the issues states have taken up, this probably draws the most national attention. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

California recognizes marriages performed before last November’s passage of Proposition 8, which limits marriage to one man and one woman. Rhode Island, New York, and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Nevada allow domestic partnerships, providing some or all state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples. New Mexico sought to pass a domestic partnership bill, but it was delayed in February, effectively killing it for this year.

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Medical marijuana

Once a taboo subject in many states, the drive to allow medical marijuana has picked up steam as advocates cite scientific research showing it can be an effective pain medication.

Law enforcement officials generally are not concerned about the potential for such pot to enter society at large. Medical marijuana is allowed in 14 states. Though federal law prohibits marijuana possession even for medical purposes, the US Justice Department said last year it wouldn’t focus on enforcement in those states.

That has opened the way for Maryland lawmakers this year to take up a bipartisan bill that would license growers and dispensaries and permit doctors to recommend marijuana only to patients they know well.

Meanwhile, advocates are lobbying for medical marijuana-related bills in six other states and are pursuing even more far-reaching bills that would allow legal possession of small amounts of pot for recreational purposes in California, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

Renewable and nuclear energy

States have long outpaced the federal government in setting requirements for wind, solar, and other renewable sources.

Electric utilities in 27 states now operate under mandatory green-energy quotas. Efforts in Congress to impose a single national standard have been slowed by those states without abundant solar or wind infrastructure; they worry that it would raise prices.

With President Obama eager to create environmentally friendly “green” jobs, states want to ensure they have the means to accommodate them. Some states are considering legislation to raise the existing renewable-energy mandate, while others have become more receptive to nuclear power, which proponents tout as a greenhouse gas-free energy source.

In 2009, 15 states considered bills dealing with site location and financing of nuclear plants. Illinois and Minnesota are seeking to repeal a ban on new nuclear construction, while Georgia enacted a law that facilitates funding of new plants.

Immigration

Few issues evoke as much political passion as immigration, given the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Though it’s largely seen as a federal responsibility, in 2009, at least 1,500 bills were introduced in all 50 state legislatures.

The result: The number of laws relating to human trafficking tripled from 2008, and the number dealing with immigrants’ access to healthcare and education doubled.

Georgia, Missouri, and Nebraska enacted comprehensive laws addressing employment, law enforcement, and public benefits.

Other states have taken a variety of steps, including offering in-state college tuition to certain unauthorized immigrants, extending driver’s licenses to undocumented or temporary immigrants, and establishing programs to fight crime stemming from illegal immigration.

Last year 12 states did pass laws relating to hiring and employing unauthorized workers. And 12 states have voluntary agreements with the federal government for immigration enforcement.

Safety issues

States generally act more swiftly than Congress to address safety in response to a crime, disaster, or spate of otherwise avoidable injuries.

Other states increasingly are inclined to follow suit. A recent example: Washington State’s passage last year of the first law dealing with concussions in youth sports.

The measure came about after a middle-schooler suffered a concussion while playing football but, without medical evaluation, returned to the game and fell into a coma later.

Oregon passed its own version of the law, and several other states are taking up the issue this year. States have moved swiftly on another safety issue: 19 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving. Six states and the District of Columbia have gone even further and banned hand-held phone use by all drivers.

Gambling

Many cash-strapped states are expanding existing lottery, bingo, and other gambling programs as a means of economic development.

In Iowa, state officials are considering allowing big poker tournaments at casinos, letting bars install video gambling machines, and ending a requirement that communities vote every eight years on whether to keep their casinos.

A state Senate committee last month also approved a measure to legalize betting on football and other professional sports, though the measure would not go into effect until a federal ban on betting is overturned.

A new Illinois law allows as many as 45,000 video poker machines to be installed at bars, restaurants, and clubs. In Ohio, a measure seeking voter approval to build four full-service casinos in the state’s major cities will go before voters in November.

Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky also are looking at gambling-related legislation this year. Four states defeated initiatives to expand gambling last year.

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