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New laws: No caffeine in beer, shark fins in soup

California bans among laws set to take effect across nation

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DENVER — Starting Jan. 1, getting shark fins, caffeinated beer, cough syrup or a tan is going to be tougher than it was in 2011.

The National Conference of State Legislatures issued Monday its annual list of laws set to take effect in 2012, and there was nothing but bad news for connoisseurs of shark-fin soup. Oregon and California passed laws prohibiting the sale, trade, or distribution of the fins, which are considered a delicacy in China.

California also became the first state in the nation to require a prescription for obtaining any drug containing dextromethorphan, an ingredient found in many popular over-the-counter cough suppressants, including Robitussin, NyQuil and Dimetapp.

The law was prompted by a spike in the use of cough syrup as a recreational drug. A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel considered making the medications prescription-only, but rejected the idea in September.

Voter identification continued to be a hot topic for legislators in 2011. Four states — Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas — approved laws requiring voters to present photo identification before casting ballots.

A fifth state, South Carolina, had passed its own voter-identification law, but it was overturned Dec. 23 by the Justice Department. South Carolina is required to submit revisions in voting procedures for federal clearance as a state with a history of discrimination at the ballot box, but it can appeal Justice's ruling in federal court.

Supporters say the laws are needed to combat voter fraud, but the effort has touched off an outcry among civil rights groups, which contend that the laws are aimed at suppressing minority-voter participation. The NAACP recently launched a campaign, Stand for Freedom, to fight voter-identification measures.

Employers will be required to use E-Verify to determine the eligibility of their employees starting Jan. 1 in four states — Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. In California, however, legislators bucked the trend by prohibiting any state or local government from requiring employers to use the E-Verify program unless required by federal law or as a condition of receiving federal funds.

In education, California approved two hotly debated laws slated to take effect on New Year's Day. The California Dream Act expands eligibility for institutional grants and fee waivers to students who are in the country illegally at the state's university systems and community colleges.

To qualify, students must attend for at least three years and graduate from a California high school and prove that they are applying for legalized immigration status. The students must also meet certain academic standards.

California also becomes the first state to mandate the teaching of gay history. A new law requires schools to include in the public-school curriculum the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, along with disabled persons and others. The statute, which has no age limit, also bans instructional material that discriminates against those groups.

Conservative groups launched a petition drive Dec. 6 to bring the law before the voters in 2012. A similar signature-gathering effort fell short in October, but advocates note they will have an additional 60 days in the second drive to drum up the requisite 505,000 signatures.

Students taking the SAT in California caught a break with a law requiring the sponsors of standardized tests to accept "alternative methods" of identification for students without a driver's license or other traditional identification.

The push to crack down on distracted driving gained ground in several states. A freshly minted Nevada law prohibits drivers from text messaging and using handheld phones. A North Dakota law bans drivers under the age of 18 from using cellular phones in their cars and all drivers from texting.

Meanwhile, Oregon legislators granted an exception from the state's anti-texting law for drivers of tow trucks, roadside-assistance vehicles and utility vehicles.

California issued a ban on the sale of beer juiced with caffeine. California teens seeking the perfect tan will have to hit the beaches, thanks to the addition of a law banning minors from using ultraviolet tanning beds.

Also in California, children must remain in car booster seats for an additional two years, until they reach the age of eight, or until they hit 4 feet 9 inches, whichever comes first.

Public employees took a hit in several states. In Delaware and North Dakota, public workers will be required to make larger contributions to their retirement funds. In Arizona, public workers employed after Jan. 1 will receive benefits lower than those of current staffers. In Oklahoma, judges and justices appointed starting in 2012 must wait an additional two years to retire with full benefits.

Oregon overhauled its hunting laws in an effort to increase compliance with reporting requirements. Hunters who report their harvest may be eligible for free tags, while those who fail to file reports may be hit with a $25 surcharge.

Penalties for illegally killing or taking certain game animals was also increased, while access to public lands for hunters was expanded.

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