JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. This week ushered in the new year, of course, and with it came a raft of new laws from Florida to California. States passed almost 40,000 laws last year. Many of them took effect this week; a host of others will roll out in the coming months.
Some of these new laws govern local issues and concerns, like allowing kids under 10 to hunt in Michigan or banning happy-hour drink specials in Utah. Others reflect hot-button national issues like immigration, abortion and government spending.
So tell us: What are the new laws where you live, and how will they affect you? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker left her long-time post at the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year. We'll talk with her about the role of opinion writing in American journalism.
But first the new laws of 2012. Joining me now in Studio 3A is Corey Dade, NPR national correspondent. Hi, Corey, welcome.
COREY DADE, BYLINE: Hi, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: So, many states have been grappling with budget shortfalls. We're seeing a lot of new laws reflecting these economic woes, I guess especially when it comes to public employees. What do you see?
DADE: Absolutely, public employees is one of the places were governments, specifically state governments but even local governments, have really tried to pull in the line. Many of these public employees are being made to contribute more to their retirement benefits, and that's been something that's happened across the board in many states.
Michigan, for example, did this with their public employees; Delaware; North Dakota; so many different states. And in Arizona, for example, newly hired workers are going to receive lower benefits than the existing workers.
LUDDEN: So smaller paychecks and not as big a pension in the end, I guess, for some.
DADE: Right, but in exchange, they still get a little bit more job security in this difficult economy.
LUDDEN: Now, we have seen a lot of resistance to this. The protests in Wisconsin made national news. State legislatures, though, say some of them feel they have no choice.
DADE: They have no choice. The - in every state, this is the same argument that's been waged by public employee unions, by local governments that rely on state funding for everything from education, to health benefits, to Medicare. But at the same time, the state governments are saying our revenues are down.
But there are some projections, this year, that show that many state governments actually may be seeing - not so much the light at the end of the tunnel, but as many of these state legislatures come into session in January, this month - they may not be dealing with the severe budget shortages that they faced when they came in over the last two previous years.
LUDDEN: Now, other states are looking at tax credits as another way to shore up revenues. What's going on there?
DADE: Well, in Michigan - Michigan for starters - they actually did the opposite. They reduced the earned income tax credit that goes to about 800,000 or so low-income families. That benefit was cut by 70 percent.
DADE: Exactly. So families that really relied on it, they got a credit of about $400 ,now will get a credit of about $140. But what they did in Michigan and other states, they gave tax - more tax - they called it tax reform, but what they effectively did is start lowering, sort of, across-the-board taxes and other tariffs on businesses to try to spur economy - spur the local economy and accelerate job growth.
LUDDEN: So, really shifting their tax structure there.
LUDDEN: Anything else on the economic front that we should note?
DADE: Well, I think what we're seeing also is a lot of local governments and state governments are bracing for the impact of the health care law that was passed by Congress. Of course that is President Obama's health care reform law. From state to state, it is unclear what it would mean for state budgets, but one thing is clear for people who are going to be shopping for insurance. One thing the law requires is a more clear and simplified explanation of benefits.
So that is actually mandated. So from state to state, one thing that will be consistent is people looking for new coverage, maybe better rates, should have a more easily to understand set of benefits that they'll get.
LUDDEN: OK, moving on, we've seen a number of new laws about abortion regulations.
DADE: That's right. One that stands out is in New Hampshire. Girls who want to seek - who are seeking an abortion, first have to tell their parents or a judge. That is something that abortion advocates see as a clear pattern of trying to increase the level of oversight, the level of interdiction that - intervention, rather, that authorities can have before abortions actually take place.
Some on the other side, the pro-choice movement, think that this is going to be an open - open the door to lawsuits in New Hampshire and other states that are trying the same legislation.
LUDDEN: And we actually have someone on the line from New Hampshire. McKayla(ph) is in Dover. Hi, there.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
MCKAYLA: I'm calling to make a comment upon the new law, which requires women under 18 to notify their parents or a judge. I think that it was a political boon for the Republicans, a really easy issue to convince parents that there should be a law that their teenagers tell them if they're getting an abortion.
But truth be told, I mean, stuff can get really weird up in New Hampshire. You know, home situations are not always perfect, and I think that this is a really dangerous law for teenagers, women under 18.
LUDDEN: All right, McKayla, thanks for the call. So Corey, this was controversial, I take it?
DADE: Absolutely, and it's not the first time this law has actually come up. This has been kicked around before this past year, when it was passed. So there's not - this wasn't one of the laws that was passed in New Hampshire that had an enormous amount of public sentiment behind it.
LUDDEN: We should note that a lot of laws also are taking effect to restrict immigration, tighten voter ID laws. We'll be talking a lot of about that in a few moments. But what do you - what trend overall are you seeing here, Corey? We've had a lot of - last year, we were talking about conservatives taking control of legislatures, right? So...
DADE: Absolutely. That – conservatives, or rather Republicans, taking broader control over state legislatures and governors offices. Consider this, Jennifer: Republicans now control 28 of the 50 state legislatures, and Democrats only control about 15. The rest of the state legislatures are split between Democratic and Republican control.
And it doesn't stop there: Republicans control not only the legislature but also the governor's office in 23 states. So not only do you have legislative control, but now your party in many of these states, in the majority of states, have control of the governor's office, who actually can actually sign this legislation.
So it does reflect this sort of red-state wave that happened in 2010, and now you're seeing on the local level and on the state level a lot of legislation come out of that, like you said abortion, immigration, crackdowns on so-called voter fraud, all those things are happening.
In the case of voter fraud, in the case of voter ID, you had several states last year that passed legislation, I think it's eight, that passed legislation requiring some form of ID before they vote, which obviously we'll talk about later.
LUDDEN: OK, let's take another call. Matthew's(ph) in San Jose, California. Hi there.
MATTHEW: How's it going?
MATTHEW: Yeah, in San Jose, California, we have a new law that bans polyurethane plastic bags for all small business and large businesses.
LUDDEN: So none at all? You can't even pay five cents for them?
MATTHEW: You can pay five cents for them, but nobody seems - around me wants to pay that. And then there's also businesses that are ignoring the new law, and so people are just leaving one liquor store, going across the street and going to another one.
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LUDDEN: Oh dear, they'll have to get the enforcement up to gear there. All right, Matthew, you think it's a good law or no?
MATTHEW: I personally think that it's good and that people are just going to end up having to, you know, carry bags with them, the reusable, maybe a backpack. I personally think that it's a very good thing, and I can take my comments off the air.
LUDDEN: All right, thank you, Matthew.
DADE: Maybe that'll be the next legislation that comes out, the polyurethane bag police.
LUDDEN: All right, we've got tens of thousands of new laws, so many, a lot of them just one-offs here and there. Illinois has an interesting one, a registry for convicted murderers. Explain that.
DADE: Exactly, when you think about registry, most of us think about the sex offender registries that are very common now in many states. But for people convicted of murders, once they do their time, and they're released from prison, the law requires or will require that they register on a database that the state will maintain, and it's done in an effort, in their minds, to alert the public of potential dangers.
But it does raise a question of how restrictive that database will be. In the case of sex offender registries, the big problem is that sex offenders are restricted from living in certain areas, obviously within certain vicinities of schools and such. So in many states what you're finding with sex offenders is that they often get pushed further and further away from communities that they actually can afford to live in.
LUDDEN: And so we might see the same thing with convicted murderers who have served their time, or is that the concern?
DADE: That is the concern because you have to - you have to give everything. You have to give - you register your name, your address, place of birth - place of birth, your place of resident, of course, residence, of course.
But yes, it - when you have people trying to re-enter society, the opponents of this legislation raise the question of whether or not they'll be able to effectively do that.
LUDDEN: All right, so a new registry of convicted murderers in Illinois.
LUDDEN: Very briefly, what about this end of happy hour in Utah that we mentioned? How can they do that?
DADE: Well, what they did was pass a law that actually makes it illegal to have any drink specials, daily drink specials, that's what they call it, which we know as happy hour. And when you look at the state in which it occurs, I don't think too many of our listeners should be surprised by that.
But it does reflect the continued - the continued sentiments, in Utah in particular, against alcohol consumption in public.
LUDDEN: A state with a large Mormon population.
LUDDEN: All right, we'll have more new state laws in a moment. We're talking about new laws taking effect in 2012. Some of the more controversial ones focus on immigration and voter ID, and we'll dive into that soon. What are the new laws where you live, and how will they affect you? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or email us, email@example.com. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. As of January 1st, it's illegal in California to sell a live animal on any street or in any parking lot or at a carnival. Hmm. Government workers in Delaware and other states must contribute more to their retirement funds. Other states added laws in health care, employment, abortion and immigration, among others.
What are the new laws where you live, and how will they affect you? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We've got a caller in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi there, Jerry.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
JERRY: Yeah, well, the new law that I'm a little miffed about in Michigan is they have decided to start taxing, for the income tax, for the first time public employee retirement income. And I know when I was - it's been a few years, about 10 years ago that I was a public employee, the first 15 years of my career I spent as a public employee. And at the time, I know I wasn't getting paid market value, but one of the reasons that I stayed with it was to make sure that I had a retirement plan.
As an engineer in private practice, there's no such thing as retirement plans other than 401(k)s and such that you have to self-fund. And so basically, they're going to take away, now, 4 percent every year of whatever I use out of my retirement plan.
LUDDEN: So you're getting those benefits now? You're going to see that cut now?
JERRY: In a few years. I'm just short of retirement right now.
LUDDEN: OK. Was there a lot of protest there in Michigan?
JERRY: Actually, they're - well, I guess there's been a general march to scapegoat public employees in general at the state House. So there's been a lot of public protests, you know, from public employees on a number of issues, larger ones to current employees are benefit changes and things like that. But, yeah, so that's...
LUDDEN: All right. Well, Jerry, thanks for the phone call. And NPR national correspondent Corey Dade, Jerry's not alone out there.
DADE: No, he's not, especially in the Midwest states, where they've been hit particularly hard with budget shortfalls as a result of just revenue drying up to the states. We've seen it in Wisconsin. We've seen efforts similar to this in Ohio. And in Michigan, Michigan has been so decimated. They were at the tip of the spear when the recession hit.
They were actually having budget shortfalls before the recession hit. So the caller is right insofar as there's been a lot of criticism from people in so many different - in parts of the state about the different cuts that are being made - that are being placed on public employees that governments really have faced so much not only criticism from them, but really, they haven't been able to find any other levers to pull because so many of these local - state governments also, but also so many of these cities have industrial economies that have not been able to diversify.
So they have no choice, in some degree - at least the argument that comes from the governor and other public officials - but to go after the benefits of public employees.
LUDDEN: All right let's move on now to some of the big trends that we're seeing. A lot of states have focused on immigration. What's happening there, Corey?
DADE: Absolutely. As you know and many know, that last year in particular, Arizona, other states - well, Arizona did this before, but other states like Georgia, Alabama, have started passing laws that tighten up immigration enforcement. And that's specifically laws that allow law enforcement to actually become more aggressive in questioning people suspected of being illegal immigrants for documentation to prove that they're here illegally.
Alabama has the most strict law, of course, at this point, and it goes further than any other law. Now there's so much blowback to the Alabama law, that - it's being criticized as going too far, that now the legislature itself, when it comes into session this month, is actually looking at ways to scale it back.
So along with that, the laws or the provisions that are actually coming into effect this year are the E-Verify provisions. And this refers to the federal system, the federal database that businesses in states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, businesses in those states will have to go to that database, go to the E-Verify database to confirm that their new employees are actually in the country legally. And they face fines, a variety of different penalties if they do not.
LUDDEN: And this has been a program that's been pretty controversial, and people say there's, you know, false positives or negatives. It doesn't - it definitely does not have a 100 percent accuracy rate here, but they're working on it, and it has been spreading quickly.
DADE: It has been spreading, and it's actually one aspect of many of these immigration enforcement laws that's been held up by the courts. It's been allowed to proceed, while the other provisions are still under challenge - in some cases injunction - by the federal courts.
Of course, that's because the federal government is actually suing to overturn this legislation on the state level. But E-Verify certainly has survived the legal challenge.
LUDDEN: So another step there for some business owners. In terms of court challenges, the Supreme Court is going to look at this issue, is that right, this coming year?
DADE: The Supreme Court will not look at E-Verify because that's already been decided by the courts. But the high court did decide to take up the Arizona case, which everyone was expecting will happen. Certainly, the proponents of this law in Arizona were hoping that this would happen.
And so whatever side the Supreme Court comes down on will have enormous consequences for all these other laws.
LUDDEN: Right. So other states may have to change or tweak their laws depending on what comes out of the Supreme Court.
LUDDEN: And what about - are there other states out there thinking of creating laws, waiting to see what happens?
DADE: Yeah, these types of laws are actually in the works in one form or another in so many different states, too many to name. Some of them have been rejected by certain legislatures over the last year or so. But I think at this point, what I'm seeing is that many states are actually pausing to see what happens with these federal cases, and they're trying to look at that and possibly actually tweak their laws before there actually is a federal decision in these different court cases or a Supreme Court decision, so that they can perhaps find a way to thread that needle and get their legislation passed eventually. So this is a very pivotal year for this whole issue.
LUDDEN: Now, we've been talking about laws restricting - aiming to restrict illegal immigration. Some states have taken a different tact - California, for example.
DADE: That's right. California has its own version of the DREAM Act, and of course the DREAM Act was the federal provision proposed by Congress that would have actually put on a path to citizenship a certain population of Latinos in particular, but illegal immigrants whose parents came to this country and brought their children with them as babies.
And there are a bunch of different provisions that would qualify these groups of people, but on the state level in California, what they're doing is actually extending scholarships to the children who were born in other countries as infants, but have spent their entire lives here - scholarships for college.
LUDDEN: So not just the ability to go to a public institution...
DADE: To attend, right.
LUDDEN: But to qualify - now, I read private scholarships at public institutions?
DADE: Right. They are - what - this is actually similar to what Illinois is trying to do. They're using their leverage - the state government is using their leverage to actually bring together private investment, nonprofits, et cetera, to fund this. And this is, in some degree, a political answer, the idea being that we're going to help these children and these young people get an education at institutions, but we're not going to put it on the backs of the taxpayer.
LUDDEN: OK. Corey Dade is a national correspondent for NPR. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much.
DADE: Thank you, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: NPR correspondent Pam Fessler joins us now here, as well. She's been covering voting identification laws around the country. Welcome, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
LUDDEN: Now, before we dig a little deeper, let's just clarify: We're talking about laws that require voters to present a certain kind of identification, right, when you go to vote.
FESSLER: That's right. We're talking specifically about a government-issued photo ID. Lots of states require some kind of ID, but these are very strict rules that require these specific government-issued photo IDs.
LUDDEN: OK, now this is an election year, so this is a very relevant topic, lots of new laws. What do you see happening?
FESSLER: Well, what we have - before this year, we only had two states that required these government-issued photo IDs. It was Georgia and Indiana. And now we have, starting this year, a number of states that either have new laws and new requirements, or might have new laws and requirements.
Kansas, Tennessee, Wisconsin are now - those laws have gone into effect. They will require their voters to show government-issued photo ID. Laws were also passed in South Carolina and Texas, but both of those states - because of the Voting Rights Act - require the Department of Justice to approve their voting law changes. And just a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina's law from going into effect because they said that it would discriminate against minorities who are less likely to have this photo ID.
LUDDEN: I think read somewhere 20 percent less likely.
FESSLER: About 20 percent, yeah, less likely. But the state is saying that it's going to challenge that decision, so we don't know what's going to happen for - but, you know, in November, what South Carolina's votes...
LUDDEN: Just to make it more confusing.
FESSLER: Exactly, exactly. And then at the same time, there are a number of states that are considering new voter ID laws this year, which could, in fact, go into effect before the election. It's going on in Nebraska, Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey. It's a really hot topic.
LUDDEN: Wow. Now, these laws have, obviously, been extremely controversial. Why do lawmakers say that they need them?
FESSLER: Well, the proponents - which tend to be Republican. Most of the ones - the new laws have been passed by Republican legislatures, although it's not totally the case. But they say that a photo ID is needed to prevent fraud at the polling place. They argue that - especially in this era when we have so many close elections - that even if there's a little bit of fraud, somebody coming and voting using a false identity - that, you know, it could steal the election. Although, quite frankly, there's very little evidence that there's much of this type of fraud, and what there is - it tends to be more with absentee ballots, with a lot - which a lot of these laws don't address.
LUDDEN: Oh, really? You don't have to show the same ID, obviously, I guess, (unintelligible).
FESSLER: It depends, state by state. Some states, you do have to show ID if you submit an absentee ballot, but some others, you don't.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Let's get a caller in the line, Calvin in Sumter, South Carolina. Hi there, Calvin.
CALVIN: Good evening. How are you doing?
CALVIN: Out here, we are the only state to have that bill shut down, because it's a very, very bad bill, like you said, your guest said. There's never been no case of voter fraud here. Now, what is the fraud is that 217,000 people here in South Carolina, it would have disenfranchised. You would have - (unintelligible) would have - took them - their rights away from them. Now, that is the fraud. And a matter of fact, it's five million across the nation that a lot of these bills that some states have allowed to pass would disenfranchise.
But what it has done, it has poisoned the mind of a lot of people thinking that now they can't vote without this voter ID. So no, I think they need to - the states need to be responsible for putting it out there that they can vote with their - without their ID.
LUDDEN: And do I understand, Calvin, you're actually part of a party - a lawsuit against this.
CALVIN: Exactly. We are the ones that went to Justice Department, along with several groups like the NAACP, the ACLU, Progressive Network, the Women's League of Voters, AARP. All of us have combined, because this was disenfranchising several people, I mean, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people abroad and millions, like I said, you know, across the nation. So - but right now, we're expect them to appeal this, and we will be - we're ready to sharpen our nails and fight this tooth and nail to the very end.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, Calvin, thank you so much for your phone call.
CALVIN: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Pam, we heard a lot of numbers there.
FESSLER: Well, it's interesting. I actually did go down to South Carolina to do a story about this, and, in fact, found a number of people and interviewed quite a few people who, as hard it is to believe, don't have any kind of government-issued photo ID. And the issue is is that most of the states that require this are saying they'll provide free ID to anybody who needs it. But the problem is a lot of people do not have the underlying documents that they need to get the free ID.
LUDDEN: Such as?
FESSLER: A birth certificate, or maybe they have a birth certificate, but the name is different than the one that they have on their Social Security card. And I found, especially in South Carolina, that a lot of this was common in certain rural areas. Many years ago, when people were born on the farm with midwives, they just, quite frankly, never got a birth certificate. And as hard it is to believe, they've gone through life without one. And so those people - that's what the argument is, is that it imposes a huge burden on these people who are legitimate voters, or probably legitimate voters, that they have to spend a lot of money and a lot of time trying to get these documents so that they can get the photo ID.
LUDDEN: You said that it's not clear there is a huge problem with voter fraud. Are there any confirmed cases of voter fraud?
FESSLER: Actually, in South Carolina, the state election commission told me that they had - on record, they had no confirmed cases of voter fraud in the state. Now, that said, I would say you see a handful of cases in every state almost every election year, where there are allegations, but maybe they don't prosecute them. So, I mean, there are some cases of voter fraud. But the proponents of these laws are saying even one case of voter fraud in a tight election is too many. And that's why they say they need these laws. But, of course, the opponents say even one case of a legitimate voter being denied the right to vote is too many.
LUDDEN: So contentious and tied up in the courts, so we'll have to see. Are there other states not required to get clearance from the Justice Department who have more freedom in what they can require?
FESSLER: Well, they do in some sense, in that their laws have already gone into effect. I mentioned Wisconsin. Wisconsin has one of the laws that went into effect January 1st, and it is one of the stricter ones. And the state is trying to implement - they're trying to educate people so that they know that they do need ID now. But this particular law is now the target of a lawsuit by the ACLU, which is challenging the constitutionality of it because it says it not only discriminates against minorities, but also the elderly and students who are also less likely to have the required ID.
In - I mean, in Wisconsin, a government - I mean, a university - a state university ID does not qualify as an - it doesn't meet the requirements of the new law. So the argument is that many students might not be able to vote.
LUDDEN: Pam Fessler is an NPR correspondent. She covers poverty and follows voter ID requirements across the country. She joined us in Studio 3A. Thank you so much.
FESSLER: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Up next, longtime columnist Cynthia Tucker joins us. She's now teaching journalism. We'll talk about the role and evolution of opinion journalism. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.