- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004


Resolved for 2005: No tigers as pets in New York, better access to health care for everybody in Maine and no lawyers or juries arguing about whether a restaurant is to blame for obesity, at least in Illinois and Missouri.

Many states set Jan. 1 as the effective date for laws passed last year, and residents in 19 jurisdictions today must heed the new rules that offer a few clues to the priorities, concerns and quirks of state lawmakers and the citizens who elect them. No new laws take effect in Maryland, Virginia or the District.

Health care is among legislators’ biggest concerns.

Maine continued to phase in its ambitious state-supported universal health care program, with coverage beginning for small businesses and the self-employed. The voluntary program provides access to affordable health care, and premiums are based on people’s ability to pay.

Rhode Island expanded health insurance for disabled poor people, giving them access to a Medicaid buy-in program.

Violence in sports drew attention in Illinois, where fans now can get up to a year in prison for assaulting umpires, referees or coaches — something that has happened at Chicago White Sox games.

In Missouri, a new law toughens inspections of bungee cords and climbing walls, after the death of a woman on a mobile climbing wall at a fair.

Wild animals are no longer allowed as pets in New York, a year after a 400-pound tiger kept in a Harlem apartment chomped on its owner’s right leg. The law carries a $500 fine for a first offense, $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

At least two more states approved measures to protect the restaurants and fast-food chains that serve up fattening food from being sued. Illinois and Missouri joined at least 10 other states to outlaw such litigation. Their message: People make people fat, not restaurants.

“This is one more thing we don’t really need on our plates,” Sam Toia, owner of 17 Chicago-area restaurants serving Italian-American cuisine such as pizza and lasagna, told Illinois lawmakers, urging them to impose the ban and give restaurant management a clearer conscience.

Food also was on the minds of lawmakers in Indiana, in terms of making sure it is safe to eat. Now all restaurants, day-care programs and schools will have to have at least one food handler certified in food safety.

For government itself, financial health depends on taxes. Colorado and Montana raised them on cigarettes and other tobacco products, with at least some of the money going toward health care. Pennsylvania raised its fees on boaters and anglers.

Montana cut its income taxes by an average of 7 percent, saving an average household roughly $170 and costing the state some $40 million each year. The cut was approved in 2003 but delayed for a year.

Rhode Island continued to restructure its government, shifting more power to the governor by barring legislators from serving on, or making appointments to, many of the state’s boards and commissions.

Crime and punishment, as always, came up for more scrutiny in many states.

Florida judges now can order that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or manic depression get outpatient treatment.

Elsewhere, Georgia has made it a felony carrying a five-year prison term to remove or destroy an electronic monitoring bracelet, Illinois will now require arsonists to register with the state like sex offenders and Missouri expanded its collection of DNA from just violent felons to all felons and provided for restitution for those convicts who are cleared by DNA evidence.

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