New state laws run social gamut

Churromakers, clamdiggers, among those facing new regulation for the coming year.

If you like your churros fresh, you're in luck. Food carts in California are no longer bound by law to sell the Spanish donut ready-made. They can be fried right on the street corner.

And those with a penchant for driving on the dusty sections of rivers should steer clear of Texas. Thursday, the state officially banned motor vehicles from dry riverbeds - an attempt to stave off erosion.

As the new year begins, more than 500 new laws in 21 states - the byproducts of long and oft-tedious legislative sessions - will change American's lives in ways both serious and obscure.

Many of the new measures reflect American society's most contentious issues - from public safety to privacy concerns. In some cases, they can be viewed as a sort of ideological and legislative roadmap for what lies ahead on the national front.

"In the 20th century, they said that states were laboratories for [national ] reform," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist from California State University, Sacramento. "States have always enacted laws that are the precursors to federal laws."

At the top of many states' agendas this year: combating telemarketers and those who send unsolicited e-mail.

From the West Coast to New England, states issued laws calling for "do not call lists." In Maine, telemarketers can no longer use special devices to willfully block their phone numbers when soliciting residents. A Nevada lawtakes on telemarketers by using the national "do not call list," still under court challenge, to restrict calls made within the state.

While states are acting to restrain marketers, they also are imposing a spate of new fees. According to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 30 states raised $2.6 billion in revenue from fees in 2003, compared to 16 states and $926 million the year before.

The fees, say experts, allow states to ease budget shortfalls without imposing tax increases, which are generally unpopular among voters.

Starting this year, Oregon's two-year registration fee for automobile owners rose from $30 to $54. And those who dig for clams or harvest oysters and shrimp will have to apply for a first-ever $6.50 license.

Some of the new laws have been pushed through only after years of intense debate. In Texas, the "Woman's Right to Know Act" now requires pregnant women to wait 24 hours before they receive an abortion, during which time they will be given educational brochures.

Anti-abortion advocates claimed victory with the legislation. "The goal of that bill in our view is that no woman in Texas seek an abortion because she feels she has no alternatives," says Joe Pojman, executive director for the Texas Alliance for Life, which has pushed the law for eight years.

Another contentious measure in Texas allows state universities to set their own tuition rates, in order to offset $558 million in higher-education cuts. At the University of Texas, Austin - the nation's largest campus with 50,000 students - rates will increase 13.2 percent this spring and 29.3 percent for the fall semester.

State issues, of course, vary widely. "Whatever the hot issues are in the state will determine what the laws are," says Kae Warnock, a research analyst for NCSL. But some themes, like health issues and road safety, are perennial and universal.

While lounges and pubs from New York City to Cambridge, Mass., threw out their ashtrays last summer and fall, at the stroke of midnight Thursday Maine became the fifth state to ban smoking in bars and bingo halls.

"People don't realize what this will do to [their businesses]," says Tracy Knight, owner of the Loose Moose Saloon in Gray, Me. Ms. Knight spear-headed an unsuccessful effort to overturn the ban. "It's bad enough that it's going into effect in January - in Maine."

And then there are road rules. In Illinois, overhauls and tweaks of traffic regulations came up throughout the legislative session. Now, teenagers who have only had their licences for six months will be penalized if more than one passenger in their car is under the age of 20. The law includes exceptions for family members. And drivers whoIinger for more than half a mile in the left lane - the so-called fast lane - will be fined. The price tag: $75.

One could be forgiven for already assuming that excessive left-lane lingering was ticketable. Indeed, some of the new state laws are surprising for the simple fact that they weren't already illegal.

A new tweak to a California law, for example, bars people from watching video or television while they are driving.

It begs the question: Does anyone need a law to tell them that watching a morning show en route to work is not the safest way to commute?

Material from wire services were used in this report.

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