STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
1. Stamping Out Drugs
For more than 20 years, states have tried to figure out how to make crime pay. If you’re caught with illegal drugs in Nebraska, for example, but don’t have a state-issued drug tax stamp, you’ll face a fine on top of criminal charges. Nebraska began issuing the stamps in 1991 following passage of a tax on illegal drugs ranging from $100 per ounce of marijuana to $500 for 50 LSD doses. Stamps can be bought at state revenue offices. Roughly 625 have been sold —mostly to art collectors—who prize the unusual image on Nebraska’s stamp. Drug dealers typically learn of the stamps only after they’ve been busted. Fines on tax evaders have brought the state $544,588. At least 19 other states issue similar stamps.
2. Bait Ban
Starting in July, California stores must pull highly lethal rat poison off the shelves. The state ban on rodenticides, the first in the nation, is an effort to protect wildlife, pets and children from inadvertently ingesting it. Environmental groups, which have long lobbied for the ban, say rodenticides have killed at least 300 animals other than rats in California in the last two decades. Rodents that eat it die of internal bleeding. The toxin typically stays in the rodents’ tissues, so any animal that eats the rodent or its carcass is also poisoned. Raptors are especially vulnerable. Until now, consumers have been able to buy products such as d-Con in home-improvement stores. In the future, only licensed exterminators in California will be able to get it.
3. Voting With Their Tastebuds
Louisiana Senator Rick Gallot (D) told high school students their voices matter in government—and then he proved it. This past fall, Gallot visited Ruston High School as part of NCSL’s annual Back to School program. When he asked students what they’d like to see changed, they said wanted tastier school cafeteria food. So Gallot filed a resolution asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop more appealing food choices for the National School Lunch Program. In April, at Gallot’s invitation, Ruston students testified in favor of the resolution. “I wanted to show them that their voices do count and why it’s important for them to be engaged in government,” Gallot told the Shreveport Times. The measure passed out of the Senate on a 36-0 vote.
4. Eye On Police Shootings
Fatal shootings by police in Wisconsin will be reviewed by independent experts following enactment of a bill co-sponsored by a former sheriff’s deputy. It is the first law of its kind in the nation. In 2004, police in Kenosha shot an unarmed man, Michael Bell, 21, in front of his mother and sister. The case was investigated internally, and the officers involved were cleared. Ever since, Bell’s father has waged a campaign for greater accountability when police use lethal force. In 2011, two more unarmed men died, one while he was in the back of a police cruiser and the other outside his home. Representative Garey Bies (R), a former deputy, co-sponsored the bill with Representative Chris Taylor (D). Bies told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he thought the investigation process should be more open.
5. Pension Pinch
Puerto Rico’s leaders have vowed to appeal a court decision declaring the island’s recent teacher pension overhaul unconstitutional. The reforms were seen as a way to bolster Puerto Rico’s shrinking economy, which suffers from high debt and unemployment. Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla (D) said the pension plan has an unfunded liability of more than $10 billion and that without reform, it will collapse by 2020, leaving many teachers without pensions. The overhaul called for raising the retirement age for new hires to 62, increasing employee contributions from 9 percent to 10 percent, and moving the pension into a 401(k)-like system. Teachers’ lawyers have argued the reforms would trigger the retirement of 10,000 teachers, further hurting the pension’s finances. The 2008 financial crisis brought about pension reforms in a majority of states.
6. Green Genes
Vermont became the first state to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such starting July 2016. Many crops, including corn, are genetically modified to increase their disease resistance or shelf life, but critics say the process may endanger human health. Supporters say no evidence supports that. Sixty countries, including the European Union, require labeling. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws, but both delayed implementation until other states join them, a strategy designed to protect them against lawsuits. Voters in Washington and California defeated labeling measures there, but GMO labeling bills are still under consideration in about 29 other states.
Tiny plastic beads found in exfoliating creams and other beauty products are creating an ugly mess in water bodies, say many Illinois legislators, environmentalists and state water officials. The microbeads are gentle scrubbers that give many users smoother skin. But since they are small enough to pass through sewage systems, the non-biodegradable beads are piling up in Lake Michigan and other water bodies, where they absorb toxins and pose a hazard to fish and wildlife. A bill sponsored by Senator Heather Steans (D) and Representative Kelly Cassidy (D) would prohibit the sale of products containing the beads starting Dec. 31, 2018. It has had early support from both houses and the governor. Many cosmetics firms already are working on alternatives to the beads, including ground nuts and seeds.
8. Pregnancy Test
Tennessee has passed a new law authorizing criminal prosecution of women whose illegal drug use may have harmed their unborn children. Under the law, suspicious miscarriages, stillbirths and infants with birth defects are grounds for possible criminal assault charges carrying prison sentences of up to 15 years. Tennessee, the first to state with such a law, has a high number of babies born with drugs in their systems. Supporters believe the threat of jail will force mothers into treatment. Women who stick with drug addiction programs will not be charged. Critics say the measure will harm babies by making pregnant women afraid to seek medical care and may lead to more abortions.
9. Whale Of A Controversy
The killer whale show at California’s famous SeaWorld has long been a crowd favorite, but some critics claim it’s time to drain the pool. A hotly debated bill in the California Legislature this past session called for ending the show and releasing the whales. It was based in part on a documentary film, “Blackfish,” that argued whales are too big to be confined and become aggressive in captivity. SeaWorld officials said the accusations lacked any scientific basis. This spring, Representative Richard Bloom (D) agreed to pull his bill back for further study after he said it became clear members of the water, parks and wildlife committee needed more time to study competing claims. The bill is expected back in mid-2015.
Florida expects to see its sales tax coffers grow about $80 million annually, thanks to an announcement by giant Internet retailer Amazon.com that it will start collecting taxes on purchases there. In the past, Floridians have been able to buy at Amazon.com without paying taxes. But the company soon will have a physical presence in Florida—it is building warehouses in Lakeland and Florida—so it can no longer take advantage of a legal loophole allowing it to skip collections. Amazon collects sales taxes for purchases sent to 20 states, according to the Tampa Tribune. The proposed Marketplace Fairness Act, under debate in Congress, would make all online retailers collect taxes, eliminating a price advantage they have had over local brick-and-mortar stores.