New laws of '99 put focus on children

From antismoking rules to driving safety, states and citiesexpand families' protections.

With the dawning of 1999, thousands of new laws go into effect around the nation - offering a freeze-frame look at American democracy in action.

These new laws, which provide a glimpse of the citizenry's current concerns, range from the sweeping to the quirky. Oregon, Washington, and Connecticut are boosting the minimum wage for all workers, while Massachusetts now has an official state polka song.

But one strong theme emerges from the laws that took effect Jan. 1: a desire to protect people - especially kids - from the effects of tobacco and alcohol, including drunken drivers. Many laws also try to safeguard children and families from other dangers - everything from inexperienced teenage drivers to abusive husbands.

In this year of overflowing government coffers, there are also tax breaks galore. Car taxes are falling in California. And the cash-rich federal government bumped up the tax credit for each child from $400 to $500.

This multitude of new laws "is all about government responding to what people want," says Cynthia Craft, editor of the Sacramento, Calif.-based StateNet Capitol Journal. In this cynical age, is government truly working for the good of people? "It actually happens sometimes," she says with a chuckle.

To be sure, the new list of laws reads like a dream for conservative politicians. But far from being ultraconservative, the leadership in statehouses is typically "anchored in the political middle," says Tim Story of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "Moderate Republicans are in the leadership in statehouses, and it shows."

One idea that seems to have bipartisan backing is to tighten regulations governing the sale and use of alcohol and tobacco.

New York retailers will now lose their liquor licenses if caught making repeat sales to minors - even if the minors use fake IDs.

In California, retailers can now seize fake IDs from minors.

Connecticut liquor sellers must tag beer kegs with the buyer's name - an effort to enable punishment of adults who buy for minors.

Drunken drivers also face stiffer punishments.

In Washington, they face immediate suspension of their driver's licenses for a year if they refuse a breath test.

Louisiana and Illinois now require repeat offenders to install Breathalyzers that prevent their cars from starting if there's too much alcohol on their breath.

New Hampshire made it easier to try juveniles as adults if they're charged with negligent homicide while driving drunk.

On tobacco regulation, California voters, for instance, approved adding a 50-cent tax onto each pack of cigarettes sold. In Idaho, store clerks face a $100 fine for selling cigarettes to underage kids, while retailers have been told to expect two surprise inspections every year to test whether their cigarette customers are too young.

Concern for kids extends into health care. Iowa is starting a program that will guarantee health care for as many as 40,000 working-class children. New York, meanwhile, just expanded its child health insurance for the working poor to add treatment for vision, dental, mental-health, and substance-abuse needs.

Other states are more concerned about teens' safety once they get behind the wheel. Indeed, as of Jan. 1, Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska joined two dozen other states in restricting teen licenses. In Indiana, for instance, 16- to 18-year-olds can't drive after curfew. To get a full license in Minnesota, 16-year-olds must now go a full year without getting a conviction for a crash, or more than one noncrash violation.

Another grouping of laws concentrates not on children, but on their parents. In Florida, couples who won't agree to four hours of marriage counseling must wait at least three days before they can tie the knot.

Other states are taking tougher stands against domestic violence. Illinois has extended the death penalty to include cases in which a person protected by a court order - typically a wife or girlfriend - is killed by the person named in the order. And California now allows people who have to leave their job because of domestic abuse to collect unemployment insurance.

Finally, after a year in which nearly every state had excess revenue, there's the flurry of tax cuts.

Hawaiians will see the first major income-tax cut since statehood, which will save middle-class families an average of $1,893 over four years. Californians will save an average of $43 a year on car taxes. Wisconsin businesses will no longer pay property tax on computers. Georgia farmers, churches, and former prisoners of war will pay less in taxes.

All in all, the biggest story of 1998 for state legislatures was "all the excess revenues," says NCSL's Mr. Story. So one of the biggest stories for 1999, at least for taxpayers, will be the plethora of tax cuts.

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