New laws on New Year's Day, from gay marriage to ‘Caylee’s Law’

While much attention has been paid to the ‘fiscal cliff’ and the federal legislation behind it, thousands of new state laws took effect more quietly at the start of 2013.

Patrick T. Fallon/AP
The Los Angeles Unified School District All-City Honor Band marches in the Rose Parade on New Year's Day 2013.

Starting Tuesday, California hunters better not get caught using their dog to chase a bear or bobcat. Kentuckians should think twice about releasing a feral hog, and New Yorkers can get slapped with a $1,000 fine for selling even electronic cigarettes to minors.

While much attention has been paid to the federal legislation poised to kick in Jan. 1 – the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes collectively known as the “fiscal cliff” – thousands of new state laws took effect more quietly at the start of 2013.

“Each legislative session, lawmakers pass laws that range from extremely important to ridiculous,” says Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in California, in an e-mail.

Overall, he notes, fewer laws are being enacted these days, primarily because tea party legislators campaigned on a platform of getting government out of the lives of ordinary people.

In 2009, 40,697 state laws were passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in 2012, under 30,000 went through.

“Many bills are passed to clean up past mistakes or to eliminate archaic laws passed decades ago,” Mr. Stern writes. Indeed, Kentucky just got around to deleting phrases from its constitution that spell out guidelines on pensions for Confederate soldiers.

In many other cases, state legislation can offer a window into what’s on the public’s mind. Here are some new laws that analysts say came out of recent, wide concerns:

• Prompted by the case of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys, California coaches and administrators in K-12 schools and higher-education employees who have regular contact with children are now mandated to report suspected child abuse.

• “Caylee’s Laws” take effect in both California and Illinois. The legislation – named after the 2-year-old daughter of Florida’s Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of the girl’s murder despite waiting a month before reporting her disappearance – imposes strong penalties for a parent or guardian who fails to report the disappearance or death of a child within 24 hours.

• Gay marriage becomes legal in Maryland, following the same move this past Saturday in Maine. Same-sex couples from other states are also now recognized in Maine.

New Hampshire enacts a ban on so-called “partial-birth abortions,” and Montana now requires parental notification for any minor who wants to have an abortion.

• California becomes the first state to write into law expanded official authority to investigate mortgage fraud. Also, large lenders are now prohibited from foreclosing while evaluating a homeowner request for loan modifications. "Homeowners in all 50 states deserve these same strong protections and more," said Norma Garcia, Consumers Union financial services manager, in a statement.

Pennsylvania now requires that contractors on public-works projects use the E-Verify system to confirm employees’ citizenship. E-Verify measures take effect in several other states as well. Also, Montana moves to withhold state services from illegal immigrants.

• After civil liberties groups and others criticized the practice of employers asking job applicants for passwords to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, that is now illegal in Illinois.

Some say that such a list is evidence that state governments are indeed addressing public concerns, despite polls showing that voters have extremely low opinions of their legislatures.

“For anyone who says our representatives do nothing, just have them take a look at all of the new state laws going into effect on Jan.1. Many of our state lawmakers do a whole lot of something,” says Jessica Levinson, former director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies, in an e-mail.

But one question is “whether legislation is the proper avenue through which to fix or solve that problem,” adds Ms. Levinson, who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

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