As Americans ring in 2021, an array of new laws will take effect from coast to coast. Responses to the coronavirus pandemic and police brutality dominated legislative sessions in 2020, leading to scores of new laws that will take effect in the new year.
Virus-related laws include those offering help to essential workers, boosting unemployment benefits and requiring time off for sick employees. A resolution in Alabama formally encouraged fist-bumping over handshakes.
While legislatures tackled some elements of the coronavirus outbreak this year, most sessions had ended before the current wave of cases, deaths and renewed stay-at-home orders. Lawmakers of both major parties have vowed to make the pandemic response a centerpiece of their 2021 sessions, addressing issues ranging from school reopenings to governors' emergency powers.
The virus also refocused attention on the nation's uneven and expensive heath care system. Tackling issues of coverage and costs were common themes in 2020.
A Washington measure caps the monthly out-of-pocket cost of insulin at $100 until January 1, 2023, and requires the state Health Care Authority to monitor the price of insulin. A new Connecticut law requires pharmacists to dispense a 30-day emergency supply of diabetes-related drugs and devices, with a price cap, for diabetics who have less than a week's supply. Both laws take effect January 1.
"It's unconscionable that anyone should have to limit or go without a common and widely-available life-saving drug on an emergency basis in America in 2021," Connecticut state Senator Derek Slap, a West Hartford Democrat, said in a statement.
A much-anticipated Medicaid expansion is coming to Oklahoma in the new year after years of resistance from Republicans in the Legislature and governor's office. Voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment expanding the federal-state insurance program to an additional estimated 215,000 low-income residents. It takes effect in July.
Lawmakers must determine how to cover the projected $164 million state share during their 2021 session. The cost could be considerably higher, given the number of Oklahomans who have lost their jobs and work-related health insurance because of the pandemic.
Republican Governor Kevin Stitt had urged voters to reject the plan. He said the state would have to "either raise taxes or cut services somewhere else like education, first responders, or roads and bridges" to pay for the expansion.
A new law in Georgia aims to limit consumers from getting stuck with surprise medical bills by requiring insurers in many cases to pay for care by a doctor or at a hospital not within their network of providers. The law protects patients from financial responsibility beyond what they would normally have to pay. Instead, insurers and providers can take disputes to the state insurance commissioner. Minnesota also has what's being called a continuity of care law, going into effect January 1.
Workers in 20 states will get a pay hike on January 1 when the minimum wage increases, thanks to cost-of-living adjustments and other scheduled increases. Later in the year, another four states and Washington, D.C. will raise their baseline pay, which means that low-wage workers in almost half the nation could see higher pay next year.
The pay hikes come as the federal minimum wage, which hasn't seen an increase for more than 11 years, remains mired at $7.25 an hour — the longest span the baseline wage has gone without an increase since it began in 1938. At the same time, workers across the nation are struggling amid an economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to spread unabated.
Legislatures also addressed police use of force against Black people and others of color after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to widespread protests against police brutality. Among other things, new laws will mandate oversight and reporting, create civilian review panels and require more disclosures about problem officers.
States including California, Delaware, Iowa, New York, Oregon and Utah passed bans on police chokeholds. Floyd, who was Black, died after a White officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes while being recorded on video, even as Floyd pleaded for air.
New York state Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley noted the hundreds of Black men and women killed at the hands of police between the cries of "I can't breathe" by Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by New York City police in 2014, and those of Floyd in May.
Mosley, a Brooklyn Democrat who is Black, said the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act was "an important step forward, but it will not be the last."
Despite reforms in some states, the response to Floyd's death was not uniform. Similar use-of-force or disciplinary proposals in several other states failed, and some even moved in the opposite direction.
Georgia created a new crime beginning Jan. 1 defined as bias-motivated intimidation, which would apply to the death or serious bodily injury of police, firefighters and emergency personnel. It also extends to cases involving more than $500 worth of damage to their property because of "actual or perceived employment as a first responder." Violations are punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $5,000.
The law was passed by Republicans over the objections of Democrats and civil liberties groups, who said police already have enough protections. Republicans insisted on the law as part of a deal to pass a new hate crimes law in Georgia that drew bipartisan support.
Aimee Picchi contributed to this report.
First published on December 30, 2020 / 12:04 PM
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