The federal government may have been bogged down in a quagmire this year, but states across the country actively passed a slew of new laws -- ranging from conventional to controversial -- that are set to go into effect in 2012.
California takes the lead in the number of new laws that will be enacted Jan. 1, according to a list compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The ideological divide between conservative and liberal states is stark when it comes to the new regulations. It is most evident in the issue of immigration and the dueling laws that will go into effect next week.
Four states – Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia – passed laws requiring businesses to enroll in the federal E-Verify program to determine whether their employees are legal residents and eligible to work in the United States. They followed in the footsteps of 17 other states, including Arizona and Mississippi, that require public and private employers to use the Internet-based system.
But California took the opposite route. Starting Jan. 1, city and county governments in the state will be barred from requiring private employers to use E-Verify, unless it's required to receive federal funds or is mandated by the federal government. The state says the move is a cost-cutting measure, and would save private employers about $3 billion. Under current law, it's voluntary for businesses to use E-Verify.
The California Dream Act will also go into effect in 2012. The legislation expands eligibility for in-state tuition and non-state scholarships to students who may not have legal status but have attended high school in the state for at least three years, have graduated from high school, or are attending a college or university. Another legislation allows such students to participate in student government.
But California stands alone when it comes to more lax requirements on illegal immigration. Most new state laws lean on the conservative side and that's not a surprise, observers say. In 2010, a wave of elections swept conservatives to power across the country, and a majority of legislatures this year were Republican, says Jon Kuhl, a spokesman for NCSL.
Immigration was especially a hotly contested topic in 2011. There were more than 1,600 bills presented in states dealing with immigrants and refugees, according to NCSL.
"Each state politically is different. If you look in 2011, there were more Republican legislatures than there have been in recent history," he said. "If you are looking at the totality of the legislation, it does trend toward the Republican or conservative side. In California's case, where you have a Democratic governor and legislature, the politics will fall in line with that."
This conservative uprising is also reflected in new election laws that will kick off next year. Four states -- Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas -- will require voters to present a photo ID before voting. New legislation in Tennessee takes this one step further. Under a new law, election officials will be required to identify voters who may not be citizens but who are registered to vote. The people flagged by officials would be required to present proof of citizenship in order to maintain their voter registration. Texas passed a law that requires deputy and volunteer voting registrars to be U.S. citizens.
California, however, again went in the opposite direction, passing a law that allows new U.S. citizens to both register and vote on election day.
California also took the lead in passing other controversial laws that could either set the precedent for the rest of the country or face national backlash.
New legislation requires social science curricula to include "a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other cultural groups." It also expands laws against discrimination in textbook materials to include gender, religion, disability, nationality, and sexual orientation.
The law was passed in 2006 but was vetoed by then-GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"It was the first law of its kind in the nation," Kuhl said. "The way the governor [Jerry Brown] framed it when he signed it is that history should be honest."
Outside of ideological motivations, several new laws are indicative of the economic hardship states are facing.
Under a new law in Delaware, people who become members of the state's pension fund on or after Jan. 1 will be required to contribute more than earlier members. It also ups the retirement age for pension beneficiaries. Currently, employees can retire at the age of 62 with five years of service under their belt, but the law changes that to 65 with 10 years of work.
Arizona will also reduce benefits under its retirement plan for those who enroll at the start of the new year. North Dakota, meanwhile, raises the contribution requirement for its state retirement plan by two percentage points.
Here are some other noteworthy laws that will take effect on Jan. 1:
A new law in California expands the definition of cyber bullying to include certain posts on social networking sites.
Two new laws in Oregon and California prohibit the possession, sale, trade, or distribution of shark fins, a practice that some advocates of the law say has reduced certain species of sharks.
Starting Jan. 1, it will be illegal for Nevadans to write text messages or use handheld phone devices while driving.
In North Dakota, drivers under 18 years of age will be barred from using cell phones in their cars, and everyone will be prohibited from text messaging.
In California, people under the age of 18 will not be allowed to use ultraviolet tanning devices.
Delaware and Hawaii will both allow same-sex couples to marry and receive the same benefits as other married couples.