From marijuana to 'sexting': new laws set to take effect Jan. 1

In all, 45 states, the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico passed 31,005 new laws in 2010. Some of them will come into effect with the new year. Here is a sampling of some of the trends in lawmaking in 2010.

Los Angeles

1.Marijuana

California didn't legalize marijuana, as this man wanted, but it did lessen the penalty for possession of an ounce or less. (Noah Berger/AP/file)

Starting Saturday, people caught in California with as much as an ounce of marijuana will be charged with an “infraction” – a penalty that is equivalent to a parking ticket. Previously, possession of an ounce of marijuana had been a misdemeanor, which unlike an infraction, can include jail time.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, will be illegal.

Crime

Crime is always a focus of state lawmakers, but this year saw an emphasis on reining in the potentially harmful uses of new technologies and social media.

“The rise in social media-related regulations shows that private sector innovations are often followed by laws intended to limit the harmful effects of those innovations,” says Jessica Levinson, an analyst at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

California’s SB 1411 will make online impersonation a standard misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Victims will be allowed to sue the imitator for damages and losses. Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts and Texas also have laws targeting electronic impersonation.

• In Illinois, minors who distribute indecent photos of other minors electronically – known as “sexting” -- may be taken into custody by law enforcement officers and are subject to adjudication or supervision, instead of being charged with child pornography, which is a harsher offense.

• Also in Illinois, it’s now a crime to sexually exploit a child using a computer or Internet-based software. “The new law is aimed at catching sex offenders who use Internet chat rooms or online video cameras to engage in sex acts with a child,” says the NCSL’s website analysis.

Environment

A New Hampshire resident gets a energy audit for her home. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/staff/file)

“The environment is another big area of regulation, as our elected officials attempt to create laws that incentivize green behavior,” says Ms. Levinson.

• In Arizona, individuals and corporations can get income tax credits for using wind, biomass, and solar electricity. The size of the credit will depend on the amount of electricity produced.

California homebuyers doing a home inspection can now request that an audit of the energy efficiency of the home be included. The goal is help educate homeowners about which energy-efficiency home investments would be cost-effective.

New York will require companies that make or sell electronic waste equipment to begin free recycling programs for consumers.

Pensions

Illinois Sen. Terry Link speaks with reporters the passage of a police pension bill Dec. 2. (Seth Perlman/AP/file)

A top focus for state legislatures in 2010 was pension laws. “The states are just beginning to come to terms with the fiscal burdens presented by decades of over-promising on employee pensions,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

• A new Missouri law creates an employee contribution of 4 percent of salary – before taxes – for members of the Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System, the State Employees’ Retirement System and the retirement plan for judges. Before this new law, members made no contributions.

• New members of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System will be required to belong to a “Shared Risk Defined Benefit Plan.” Employee contributions will go up and down depending on available funding.

• Most public employees in Illinois will have their retirement age increased to 67. Cost of living adjustments will be reduced after retirement, and longer periods of service will be required.