New laws extend from drivers to dentists

Security and pocketbook issues underlie many of the state laws going into effect in the new year.

Kentucky car owners can now buy special license plates that advocate spaying and neutering pets. California workers have to be told 60 days in advance if they are going to be part of a mass layoff. And it is now a felony in New Hampshire to commit a hoax involving biological or chemical weapons.

These are just a few of the new state laws that will go into effect in the new year. They reflect many of society's changing concerns, from terrorism to job loss to identify theft. States continue to pass new laws protecting children. Prescription-drug legislation is popular. And several states are taking aim at telemarketers with "leave us alone" legislation.

As Georgians will soon find out, some of the new laws are the result of past federal mandates that now require a state to obtain a Social Security number for anyone obtaining or renewing a driver's license. Many are controversial, such as a new California law that gives homebuilders a 90-day grace period to make repairs of alleged construction defects before a lawsuit can be filed.

The pocketbook factor

Some residents - in North Carolina and California, for example - will find new fees or taxes as state legislatures try to bridge some of the biggest budget gaps in over 50 years.

"The overriding theme for state legislatures was having to deal with shortfalls in revenues," says William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Even though many states need revenue, few are raising taxes to start the year. Those that have include California, which has slapped on a 3.3 percent income-tax withholding requirement on investment property, second homes, and other real estate. Gasoline, diesel, and alternative fuels will rise by 1 cent a gallon in North Carolina. Most states, however, won't make decisions on tax increases until they put together their budgets - something that usually starts in January.

"In the past year, states got by with reductions," says Mr. Pound. "Will that be true of '03?"

New York State, for example, faced with a $8 billion to $10 billion deficit, may be considering new taxes at the same time past tax cuts go into effect. Starting this year, there will be a variety of tax cuts, ranging from an increase in the standard deduction for married couples who don't itemize to an increase in the college tuition tax credit. According to a spokesman for Gov. George Pataki's budget office, these tax cuts were part of a multi-year phase-in.

Legislatures also continued to enact new laws relating to the attacks of 9/11. They beefed up security at state facilities, funded new communications systems, and gave added money for first responders.

Watch your driving

Although many new laws reflect the tense times, others are more oriented toward everyday life. For example, minors in the Golden State now must wear safety helmets when they use scooters, skateboards, and inline skates. Children in Maine who weigh fewer than 40 pounds will be required to sit in an approved restraint system when in an automobile. And drivers in New Mexico will have to use an ignition interlock system for a year after a drunk-driving conviction.

Underage drinkers in New Hampshire will also find a tough new law that revokes a driver's license to anyone under the age of 21 involved in the possession, sale, use, or abuse of alcohol, controlled drugs, or phony drugs represented as real. The law lowers the blood-alcohol level to 0.02 for minors and allows arrests even if they have no cans, cups, or bottles in their possession. The fine for using false ID will be doubled to $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent convictions.

Social issues top list

States have also continued their foray into healthcare. But now they are trying to figure out ways to curtail costs, not ways to expand benefits.

One exception: New York State, which has mandated that insurers cover more frequent mammograms, osteoporosis exams, and doctor-prescribed contraceptives for women. The change will affect 7 million New Yorkers.

Other new healthcare laws are less expansive. After news stories surfaced about the use of mercury in dental fillings, New Hampshire now requires dentists to advise patients about the risks of this practice.

Education remains a concern in most states. In an effort to help address a state teacher shortage, North Carolina will allow teachers to job-share. A new Pennsylvania law requires schools to inform parents 72 hours before using pesticides. But most new laws, says Pound, involve raising teacher and student standards: "It's partly driven by the legislatures and partly by new federal legislation."

Identity theft has also been moving higher on some state agendas. A new California law gives consumers the right to place a "security freeze" on their credit reports to prevent the release of their financial information. The state has also mandated that consumers be alerted if there has been a breach that involves personal-identity information. And in California it is now illegal to obtain, sell, or distribute information with the intent to commit fraud.

"Like many laws, I anticipate these will be revisited in a few years and fine-tuned because of the evolving nature of this crime," says Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

And, as always, be prepared to see new license plates in the new year. Disabled veterans in Alaska will be honored with their own specially designed plates. And Georgia will join Kentucky in offering a license plate that benefits programs that spay and neuter dogs and cats.

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