State Lawmakers Take the Lead on Minimum Wage, ID Theft
Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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.
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. …