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Stateline July/August  2009

NEBRASKA GETS FIT

Nebraska has hired HealthFitness to run a comprehensive health management program for more than 17,000 state employees. It combines health insurance with a wellness plan. It will offer lower premiums and better coverage to employees who complete a confidential health assessment and participate in basic biometric screenings and coaching and educational programs. “Through this program, over time,” says Carlos Castillo, director of the Department of Administrative Service, “we hope to slow the increase in health insurance rates for employees and the state.”

FEMALE FARMS

Women own nearly half of Iowa’s farmland, and they often farm for different reasons than men, according to Michael Duffy, an economist at Iowa State University who conducts a regular survey of land ownership. Women tend to be more concerned about animal habitats, environment and water quality, and land preservation than their male counterparts, who focus more on maximizing crop yields. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is listening more to the concerns of women and educating them in conservation lingo, according to The Christian Science Monitor. “There’s been some new awareness that women owners out there want a say in how things are done,” John Burene, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the newspaper.

GREENBACKS FOR GREEN GRASS

Drivers along South Carolina interstates may see the grass growing taller than usual this summer. The state hopes to save $1.3 million by not mowing it as much. Grass along shoulder and medians will be mowed three, rather than the usual five, times. “The motoring public may notice the effects of reduced mowing,” says Secretary of Transportation H.B. Limehouse, “but there will be no adverse impact to highway safety.”

NEW DRIVERS’ ORANGE ALERT

New Jersey is the first state to require vehicles driven by teens holding a permit or provisional license to display orange decals on the front and rear license plates. It’s meant to help police identify new drivers and ensure they are following regulations. “This legislation will assist law enforcement personnel in identifying new drivers who might not be complying with the rules, thus putting themselves, passengers and other drivers at risk,” Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr. told the Millstone Examiner.

WINE BOOM

Illinois wineries are glad money has dried up. They are seeing more Midwestern neighbors enjoying their activities—vineyard tours, live music, gourmet meals, wine tastings, murder mysteries, dances and art festivals. “We’ve seen a lot more people from St. Louis,” Brandi Nance, marketing director for Blue Sky Winery in Makanda, told the State Journal-Register. “They’re taking a three- or four-day trip instead of a 3,000-mile plane ride.” Illinois had just 12 wineries in 1997. Today there are 70, along with 450 vineyards.

LEARNING TO SHARE

Cars and bikes don’t always get along. Twelve states require cars to give a bicyclist at least a 3-feet clearance when passing. Colorado recently joined that group and also clarified that bicyclists must ride as far to the right as is “safe,” rather than as is “possible,” which isn’t always prudent. Cyclists in Colorado can now ride two abreast on narrow mountain roads, as long as they are not impeding traffic. The law also makes driving threateningly toward a bicyclist a careless driving charge. Throwing an object at a bicyclist could draw up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

TESTS CUT

Texas lawmakers have agreed to cut back on steroid testing of public high school athletes. The current $6 million program will be slashed to $2 million over the next two years, according to the Associated Press. Illinois, New Jersey and Texas are the only states that test high schoolers for steroids, and the Texas program is by far the biggest. The first 29,000 tests produced only 11 confirmed cases, however. The scaled-back program still will test thousands, focusing on football, baseball, track and weightlifting. “I think we’ve raised awareness on a public health and safety issue,” says Representative Dan Flynn, who sponsored the original testing program in 2007.

FLUSH AWAY YOUR WORRIES

Washington lawmakers have made it easier to go to the bathroom. Starting July 26, businesses are required to allow any customer to use an employee restroom if three or more employees are working at the time, and the request doesn’t pose a security risk. It maintains the previous requirement that retailers without public restrooms allow people with inflammatory bowel diseases to use employee restrooms, if they have an identification card or a letter from a doctor or nurse.

GPS GOES TOO FAR

The New York State Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state police violated a suspect’s rights under the state constitution when it placed a GPS tracking device inside the bumper of his van without a warrant. According to The New York Times, the police attached a Q-ball on the suspect’s van secretly in the middle of night and tracked his comings and goings for 65 days. “In light of the unsettled state of federal law on the issue, we premise our ruling on our State Constitution alone,” wrote Judge Jonathan Lippman, citing similar decisions in Oregon and Washington.

STRIP CLUBS EXPOSED

Texas passed a law in 2007 requiring strip clubs to charge a $5 per person entrance fee to help fund sexual assault programs. The problem is only half the clubs are doing it. Since the law went into effect last year, only about $12.2 million has been collected, according to The Houston Chronicle. That’s far less than the $50 million expected. The clubs successfully challenged the law last year, but the state ordered them to continue turning over the money during the appeal process, which could take years. Clubs are backing a bill this session to overturn the measure.

HAMMER DOWN

Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Ohio are considering a proposal to give big rigs their own lane on Interstate 70 to improve safety and reduce highway congestion. The east-west highway is one of the nation’s busiest freight routes. If built, it would be the nation’s first truck-only corridor. The proposal was one of six “Corridors of the Future” plans chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2007. In January, officials from the four states signed a development agreement that includes a plan to hire a consultant to study the proposal. The states will use $5 million from the Transportation Department to pay for the study. It’s estimated the new lanes in each direction would cost at least $18 billion. A toll on truckers is being considered to pay for it.