published Friday, July 1st, 2011

July brings dozens of new laws into effect

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Dozens of new laws are taking effect today, the start of the new fiscal year, including a measure that toughens teacher tenure requirements in Tennessee and one that authorizes the sale of insurance policies across state lines for Georgia residents.

Tennessee’s new tenure law, another bill that took away teachers’ collective bargaining rights and anti-terrorist legislation were the most contentious of roughly 500 bills that passed the Tennessee General Assembly in this year’s session. Opponents showed up at the Capitol to protest the proposals throughout the legislative session.

In Georgia, other new laws allow billboard owners to clear-cut many trees blocking their signs and offer hefty tax breaks to Delta Air Lines, Gulfstream and developers spending $1 million or more to bring tourist attractions to the state. A law cracking down on illegal immigration is also set to take effect, but a federal judge on Monday blocked portions of it.

Under Tennessee’s new tenure law, public school teachers will have to be on the job five years instead of three to get job security. The law also creates a way for tenure to be revoked for poor teaching performance.

Another education-related law taking effect today says third-graders can’t be promoted until they can “perform the skills required in the subject of reading as demonstrated by the student’s grades or standardized test results.”

Another issue that has been heavily debated over the years and is now taking effect would place greater regulation on traffic cameras.

The law decrees that speed cameras can’t be located within a mile of a 10-mph drop in the speed limit and that tickets only can be issued for vehicles entering an intersection after the light has already turned red.

The measure also requires local governments to conduct independent traffic engineering studies — without the influence or money of private vendors — to determine the location of future cameras.

“In the past, there may have been those cameras that were set up for revenue enhancement,” said House Transportation Chairman Vince Dean, an East Ridge Republican and one of the bill’s main sponsors. “I think part of what this law does is try to make sure that’s not the case in the future.”

In Georgia, the insurance law allows the sale of insurance policies across state lines for Georgia residents. Experts say it’s among the first law of its kind in the nation.

Critics complain that it opens the door for watered-down policies that don’t cover services like diabetes care, mammograms or regular checkups for young children that are required under Georgia policies. But supporters say it could drive down prices by introducing more competition and allow the roughly 20 percent of Georgians who are uninsured to find a policy they can afford.

It could still be some time before any out-of-state policies are available to Georgia residents.

The law covers only individual policies, not the larger group ones purchased by companies providing health coverage to their employees. Such individual policies comprise only about 4 percent of the market in Georgia, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. How many insurers operating in Georgia will offer up plans from other states is also an open question.

The out-of-state plans must carry a benefits chart outlining exactly what Georgians are getting for their money and they must still be approved by the state insurance commissioner.

Lawmakers in Georgia tried for several years to adopt the health insurance bill. They succeeded this year as both the House and Senate picked up Republican seats. Passage of the bill followed a bitter debate, with Democrats arguing the bill would undermine the state’s relatively tough insurance mandates, adopted over the years by the state Legislature.

Richard Cauchi, health program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said two other states — Wyoming and Rhode Island — have passed similar laws. But Rhode Island’s law, enacted in 2008, is regional in scope, looking to partner with other New England states to expand its own health insurance offerings, he said. Wyoming’s law was enacted in 2010.

Cauchi said the Georgia law is the first to be signed since President Barack Obama signed the federal health care reform bill into law.

Eighteen states have considered such laws, Cauchi said.

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