- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003


Identity thieves will be pursued more aggressively in Indiana, the wrongfully convicted will get free tuition in Montana and seniors can expect price breaks on prescription drugs in a smattering of other states.

As July begins today, new laws in more than two dozen states go into effect.

State legislators nearly everywhere have struggled to find cash for their budgets this year, and some measures address that problem. Taxes on gasoline will go up in Maine (2.6 cents per gallon) and Washington state (5 cents), for instance.

A wide assortment of fees are increasing, too: Trout anglers in New Mexico must pay $3 for an extra rod, out-of-state snowmobilers will pay more in Montana and drinkers in Idaho must pay 2 percent more to the state-run liquor stores.

But lawmakers and governors went far beyond dollars and cents to alter the rules for many facets of public life, including health care, crime, education, imprisonment, computers and cars.

In Hawaii, insurers must provide coverage for the mentally ill just as they do for the physically ill. The change was personal for Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican whose mother has had bipolar disorder for years.

“This has been something in my life since I was 8 years old. It’s not something that goes away,” Mrs. Lingle said when she testified before legislators. “It’s a sickness. It’s an illness.”

Health care increasingly topped legislative agendas. Nevada will track medical malpractice more closely and also will try to better investigate so-called cancer clusters; Illinois and Montana created prescription-drug programs for seniors.

Florida banned smoking in the workplace, with lawmakers agreeing it would make people healthier. But the ban stretched to restaurants, leaving many people angry.

States tried to untangle issues involving health insurance. Connecticut is allowing small businesses to offer medical savings accounts to employees when regular insurance would be too expensive; Nevada and Oklahoma are trying to keep malpractice insurance affordable, with steps such as a $300,000 cap on noneconomic damages.

The online world seemed to cry out for regulation, and Indiana responded by requiring those who send spam, unsolicited e-mails sent to hundreds or sometimes thousands, to clearly identify the message as an advertisement or an adult-oriented advertisement.

In California, a law requires all companies hit by hackers to tell their customers that their security was breached.

Old technology, too, drew attention. In a three-year experiment in North Carolina, speeders in Charlotte can be caught by camera; drivers will be considered drunk with less alcohol in their bloodstream under new laws in Iowa, New York and Tennessee. And motorcyclists in Tennessee can go through red lights after stopping if their motorcycle is so light that it doesn’t trip the traffic sensor that makes the signal turn green.

Legislators didn’t ignore crime, responding to the latest worries about hate crimes, sex offenders and terrorism.

Indiana broadened the definition of identity theft and will allow judges to send written orders to creditors on behalf of victims. New Mexico established a hate-crimes law, allowing a judge to add prison time for a crime motivated by hate; the state also banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Nevada’s antiterrorism law allows for prosecutions no matter how many years it takes to catch a terrorism suspect.

Lawmakers also sought to address cases in which the criminal justice system broke down, with Montana providing a free college education for former state inmates exonerated by DNA testing. New Mexico will give convicted felons three years, rather than one year, to try to prove their innocence with DNA evidence.

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