States to ring in new laws

Legislatures take lead in easing drug costs, banning racial profiling


On issues as varied as prescription drug costs and racial profiling, new state laws that will take effect today will tackle many of the same problems that are likely to dominate the federal agenda this year.

In South Carolina, for example, a new prescription drug program for low-income elderly residents takes effect today, paid for by $20 million from the General Assembly. Gov. Jim Hodges said the program was needed to ensure that the state's seniors would not be forced to choose between food and medicine.

Throughout the presidential campaign, President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore criticized each other's plans to ensure that seniors could afford prescription drugs. But with the cost of prescription drugs rising nearly three times as fast as other health care costs, almost two dozen states have taken action in the past year to address the problem, some by creating purchasing programs and others by setting aside money to help with drug costs.

"Instead of waiting around for the federal government to act, states are taking the lead and coming up with their own solutions to important policy problems," said Gene Rose, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "We saw it over the last year.

Racial profiling, another key topic in the presidential debates, has prompted state action since New Jersey's governor, Christine Todd Whitman, acknowledged in 1999 that state troopers had systematically targeted black and Hispanic drivers. Minority drivers accounted for fewer than half of those stopped on the highway but 77 percent of those searched.

About a dozen states nationwide have passed laws against racial profiling, many of them including anti-bias training and the gathering of statistics on every driver who is stopped.

Massachusetts' new law, which takes effect today, requires police to record the race and gender of each person issued a traffic citation. Dianne Wilkerson, a state senator who supported the bill, said it was the first in the nation to include gender as a concern.

"We have begun to hear, at a warning level, a number of reports from women who believed they have been stopped because of their gender," she said.

California's new law, also taking effect today, prohibits law enforcement officers from stopping people based on their race or ethnic origin. It also requires expanded diversity training, with refresher courses every five years.

New Year's Day also brings the start of California's law on the use of DNA testing to overturn convictions. DNA testing was initially hailed as a tool to convict offenders, but several widely publicized cases of wrongful conviction have led to a movement to allow post-conviction DNA testing for those hoping that such evidence will prove their innocence.

The California law allows convicted felons to request DNA testing if such testing was not available during their trials.

With the recent decoding of the human genome, many state legislatures are also becoming active in the field of genetics policy.

Last year, Michigan and Massachusetts passed laws banning employment or insurance discrimination on the basis of genetic information. Massachusetts went further, becoming the first state in the nation to ban genetic discrimination in housing and financial services as well.

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