With new year, new state laws

Saturday ushered in plenty of change, from pets' inheritance to hikes in minimum wage.

Insurance benefits for same-sex couples in California. The abolition of common-law marriages in Pennsylvania. Tighter restrictions on owning big cats, bears, and monkeys in Minnesota. And an increase in the minimum wage in five states.

As the clock struck midnight Friday, a host of new laws took effect across America - the states' own New Year's resolutions. Many touch on familiar issues, such as healthcare and education. Others are more unusual, such as California's new ban on declawing wild or exotic cats. Still others spring from unique situations, such as a hooliganism law in Illinois that aims to keep angry White Sox fans from attacking umpires and coaches.

The measures range from sweeping reforms to mundane code revisions. And while this January's batch of new laws may be smaller than in past years, it nonetheless reflects America's ongoing concerns - and eccentricities.

"Some states are grappling with issues that other states have already addressed, and some may have passed laws that seem a bit odd, but I think the bottom line is that state legislators are responding to their constituents," says Bill Wyatt with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That is particularly true when it comes to wages. Polls routinely show that Americans favor increasing the federal minimum wage, but federal lawmakers have been unable to accomplish that task. In fact, it's been seven years since Washington upped the federal minimum wage, the second longest period without a boost since its enactment in 1938.

So frustrated states are taking the lead. This weekend, five states increased their minimum wages, making for 13 states, plus Washington - a total population of nearly 94 million - with rates above the federal level of $5.15 an hour.

"While most Americans aren't wild about seeing their taxes go up, raising the minimum wage is fairly popular with the public," says Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. "And because Democrats and Republicans are a lot more pragmatic at the state level, it's not surprising to see it happening there."

State legislatures were also concerned about highway safety. Drunk drivers in Alaska will face stiffer penalties and teenagers will now be subject to a three-tiered driver's license system. North Carolina added "aggressive driving" to its list of offenses. And in West Virginia, riders of all-terrain vehicles under the age of 18 must pass a state-certified safety course.

Cigarette taxes remain popular as states wrestle with budget woes. Already more than 35 states had so-called sin taxes, and on Saturday, Alaska and Colorado increased their taxes on cigarettes by 60 and 64 cents respectively, with some of the money going towards healthcare. And in New Mexico, the cost of everything went up - with the exception of food and medical services. The state sales tax was upped by a half percent.

New rights for gay couples

As usual, California set precedents. This weekend, it became the first state in the nation to extend all the benefits and responsibilities of married spouses to gay couples, except for joint filing of state taxes. The Insurance Equality Act, the first of its kind in the nation, prohibits insurance companies in California from offering benefits that do not cover gay and lesbian employees. And the Domestic-Partner Law grants all the rights of married spouses, such as community property, responsibility for debt, child support, and medical decisions.

"Now the only difference in California between domestic partners and married spouses is the way you enter into the relationship," says Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay civil-rights group that cosponsored the insurance bill. "And California is the only state in the country that has given all of these rights and responsibilities through the will of the people."

So far, there are between 25,000 to 30,000 registered domestic partners in California, and Mr. Kors expects that number to grow as the laws become better known.

Helmets, school, and day care

On a host of issues, other states followed California's lead. New York, for example, now requires skateboarders under age 14 to don safety helmets.

And teenagers in Illinois are no longer allowed to drop out of school at age 16; they now must stay in school until age 17.

"I love any law that will keep kids in school longer," says Phillis Myers, director of the One-to-One Learning Center in Northfield, Ill., a nonprofit that offers tutoring and diagnostic testing to students. "But what this makes us think about is ways in which we can do a better job of tailoring the education program for a child who would drop out at 15 or 16 into a different educational environment, that would be able to meet their needs,

Healthcare cropped up again in states across the nation. Maine continues to phase in its universal healthcare program, making access to services easier.

Illinois now requires adult-strength cold tablets to be locked up in an attempt to curb the production of methamphetamine. And Missouri citizens are now able to donate unused prescription drugs in sealed containers to pharmacies to be resold to the poor at a lower cost.

Two more states also made it harder for people to claim health-related problems from eating at restaurants and fast-food chains that serve fattening foods.

And all Indiana restaurants, schools, and day-care programs are now required to have at least one certified food handler on staff.

The dogs have their day

Animals were again on legislators' to-do lists. In New York, wild animals are no longer allowed as pets, after a 400-pound tiger kept in a Harlem apartment bit his owner's leg last year. In Minnesota, the breeding of wild animals is being severely restricted after another 400-pound tiger incident: an attack on a child at a wildlife sanctuary a few years ago. In Illinois, pets are now eligible for a share of their owner's fortunes.

That state now allows pet owners to include Fluffy and Spot in their wills by establishing trust funds for them. Under the new law, dogs, cats, horses, even gerbils will be looked after by a designated caretaker.

"It's one of the trendy things [in state law] right now," says Ron Schreiber, an estate planner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Chicago. "Is this the most pressing thing that ever came before the legislature? No. But it does serve a need. And some people are very attached to their pets."

Staff writer Amanda Paulson contributed to this report from Chicago.

Where wages aren't minimum

Before Jan. 1, states with minimum wages above federal levels were: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.

... And now wages have risen in: Illinois, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington State.

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