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New laws tighten controls on range of concerns, from Hula to high-tech

Good morning. If you live in California, it's now illegal to own a "Saturday night special" handgun. In Florida, police can confiscate a repeat drunken driver's car on the spot. And in Rhode Island, your cat must wear an ID tag, just like Fido.

The turning of the new year brought waves of revelry, but it also brought a whole set of new laws around the nation. They range from the sweeping to the quirky - and cover matters from education to crime to health care.

But perhaps not surprisingly in this new-millennium year, a big chunk of the newest laws tackle high-tech issues - from limiting junk e-mail to making the theft of another person's identity a crime.

Indeed, if this year is any guide, America's lawmakers will spend much of their time in the new century crafting laws to protect individual privacy - a growing public concern in this know-everything age.

"There are all these things cropping up that never would be there without technology and the Internet," says Melanie Smith, editor of StateNet Capitol Journal in Sacramento, Calif. "And legislatures are scrambling just to keep up with it."

A case in point: Earlier this year, South Carolina began selling digital copies of residents' drivers-license photos to a security-information company. It planned to use them in a sophisticated check-verifying program that would flash a picture to a store clerk who could confirm the check-writer's identity.

But word soon got out - and public outcry grew, with special concern about the sale of pictures of 16- and 17-year-olds. The legislature quickly moved to block the sale of the pictures. Numerous other states followed suit.

In a high-tech twist to an old problem, Illinois has added a new definition of child pornography, including computer-generated images. Now any resident concocting offensive material on a home PC with artistic drawing software is subject to 15 years in prison - just like someone who takes or sells illegal pictures.

Meanwhile, over the past year, Iowa, Idaho, and Oregon have all made "identity theft" a crime. They're aiming to protect against people having their credit card or Social Security numbers stolen and used against them.

Elsewhere, there was a slew of regulations trying to limit "slamming" - phone companies switching customers without their knowledge - and "spamming" - sending junk emails.

While often popular, all these types of protective restrictions don't have unanimous support. Some conservatives argue government is interfering in the free flow of commerce by imposing the regulations.

Not all the new laws relate to the high-tech realm.

States were unusually generous in boosting education funding last year - and schools can expect to see the results this year.

Kansas students will have an average of $50 more spent on each of them this year. Arkansas students will see a $20 boost.

Washington's beginning teachers will see a 17 percent pay raise. Texas teachers will get an extra $3,000. Nevada teachers who achieve national certification will get a 5 percent pay boost.

Under a $25 million Maryland scholarship program, high-school graduates who earn A- and B- averages and come from middle-income families will get full rides at state colleges - as long as they maintain their grades.

On crime, it was perhaps Wisconsin that took the biggest step: As of Jan. 1, the state abolished parole. Now prisoners will have no option but to serve their full sentences.

In a different kind of crime-cutting move, California has banned the sale of "Saturday night specials," popular in street crime, and put a one-per-month limit on buying guns.

In another move that's part of the nation's continuing crackdown on drunk driving, Florida police can now confiscate a car on the spot if a drunken driver has a previous record of such behavior.

But for drivers - especially speedy ones - in Wisconsin, there's good news. The state now bars police departments from establishing traffic-ticket quotas - a technique used by some law-enforcers around the country to boost revenues.

In health care, a major theme is boosting the rights of the mentally ill. Tennessee now insists that insurance companies fund mental-health coverage equally with other forms of care.

And then there are the quirky laws. New Yorkers, for instance, who just happen to hit a moose with their car can now legally take the roadkill home with them. And the Hula is now the official state dance of Hawaii.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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