State lawmakers take the lead on minimum wage, ID theft

Beginning Jan. 1, Illinoisans will be able to request a live phone operator when they call a state agency. Michiganders will be able to surf the Web to discover where illegal meth labs are located. And New Hampshirites will be allowed to use a leashed dog to track wounded deer, moose, or bear.

While the 109th Congress has been dubbed "the biggest do-nothing Congress" since 1948, state legislatures have had one of their most productive years in decades, experts say.

Besides providing creative solutions to mundane problems like frustration over automated phone attendants, the laws that go into effect next Monday in 32 states reveal several trends: Five states will increase their minimum wages, nine states will implement more stringent policies on citizens' privacy to curb problems associated with identity theft, and five states will mandate new recreation regulations.

"The biggest observation going into what makes up next year's new laws is the sheer diversity of issues that these legislatures are dealing with – from criminal justice to minimum wages to election reform to human services," says Bill Wyatt, who authored the National Conference of State Legislatures' survey of new state laws.

He says there is no apparent partisan bent in the new laws.

"My experience in watching state legislators over the years is that once they get into the Capitol building, they take off their partisan hats and roll up their sleeves to solve problems of constituents," says Mr. Wyatt. "This year's legislators have been called upon to become experts in a very wide set of complicated issues in a short time."

The new laws, in part, are born out of necessity for states to move forward where the federal government has stalled.

"The states have been much more productive than Congress in tackling the laundry list of items of the stuff that is concerning them most right now," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "If you go down the list, you can see what Americans are pressuring their state legislators to deal with that Congress won't or hasn't."

Minimum wage hikes

Some laws such as the minimum wage increases in North Carolina, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut reflect the same political shift that led to the Democrats taking over the US House and Senate in November, many experts say.

"Raising the minimum wage is an issue that has worked for Democrats ... and the big tax revolt of recent years appears to be waning," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "That sort of tells you the issue agenda has changed with more voters going for Democrats than Republicans."

This year, states have also been tackling several "hardy perennial issues" such as healthcare, according to Dr. Schier, Dr. Sabato, and other analysts.

Healthcare plans

Come next week, health plans in Rhode Island will be required to cover programs that help people stop smoking. And licensed care facilities in the state must designate a 'safe patient handling committee' and develop written plans to prevent injuries to patients and to healthcare workers responsible for moving patients.

Health insurers in Michigan will be permitted to offer premium rebates or reductions in payments in exchange for participation by the insured in wellness programs that their employers provide.

Water recreation activities

Meanwhile, water recreation activities will be subject to additional regulations in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Maine, New Hampshire, and New Mexico as concern grows about accidents and noise generated from watercraft, such as jet skis.

"Many towns have gone to the state legislature with their concerns, and have asked for action," says Andrea Erskine of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

In Maine, new watercraft regulations will require 16- and 17-year-olds to complete a boating safety education course to operate motorboats or sailboats.

"As more and more people convert their camps on lakes into year-round housing, development on the water is forcing the issue more and more. Legislators see this as a way to talk about the rules of navigation because right now anyone can hop into a boat with no license," Ms. Erskine adds.

Governmental ethics

Some states also are moving to restore ethics in government – sparked, in part, by several Congressional scandals, according to analysts.

North Carolina, for instance, is instituting tougher reporting and disclosure requirements for lobbyists, a direct response to the Jack Abramoff scandal in Washington. Lobbyists will be required to disclose each month, while the legislature is in session, the amount of money they are spending to lobby lawmakers. Legislators, in turn, will be able to opt-in to a "no gift registry" to let lobbyists and clients know they do not wish to receive gifts or free meals.

Generally, the new state laws "do reflect the public's uneasy mood toward government institutions," says Kareem Crayton, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "The states seem to be responding to the national sentiment that appears to run in favor of reform."

• Michigan residents will be able to surf the Web to discover the locations of illegal methamphetamine labs.

• Anyone arrested in New Mexico for a felony will be required to provide a DNA sample to law enforcement. The state is creating a DNA identification system to aid in solving crimes, tracking sex offenders, and identifying missing persons.

• Health plans in Rhode Island will be required to cover plans that help people stop smoking.

• Colorado employers will have 20 days to verify the legal work status of a new employee. Employers who don't maintain the documentation could receive fines of up to $5,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for additional offenses.

• Maryland employers will not be permitted to print employees' social security numbers on their paychecks or any part of their pay stubs.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

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