By Jacob Gershman

In cities and states across the U.S., the new year brings a flurry of new laws addressing everything from soda consumption and sick leave, to semiautomatic weapons and catfish catching. Here are the highlights:

New Taxes, Higher Taxes

"Soda taxes" are bubbling up. More than a year after Berkeley, Calif., introduced the nation's first tax on sweetened drinks, other cities are jumping on the bandwagon.

Philadelphia's 1.5-cent tax on sugary and artificially sweetened drinks has taken effect. Bay Area voters in San Francisco and Oakland also approved a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, the same rate as Berkeley's. And Boulder, Colo., residents, approved the nation's steepest soda levy, at two pennies an ounce -- or a $1.35 extra -- for a two-liter bottle. Those taxes are taking effect in coming months.

"They represent a new frontier of tax policy," said Scott Drenkard, director of state projects for the Tax Foundation, a think tank that favors lower taxes. Soda taxes, he said, are "very stark examples of state and local governments using the tax code to influence nutrition choices, which are by definition very personal."

Supporters of the taxes say the levies encourage people to drink healthier beverages while helping to pay for more public services like education.

It's getting harder for shoppers to avoid paying local taxes. The company is charging and collecting sales taxes in four more states: Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska and Utah.

Seven states,including Pennsylvania and Michigan, are raising their gasoline taxes. The two states both approved increases of more than 7 cents a gallon.

A new tax in Portland, Ore., targets "excessive" chief-executive compensation. City lawmakers approved a surtax on public companies that kicks in when CEOs make 100 times or more than the company's median worker pay. Portland expects the surtax to raise as much as $3.5 million a year.

Illinois is no longer imposing sales taxes on feminine hygiene products such as tampons.

Labor Laws

More jurisdictions will require paid sick leave for employees. Paid sick-leave laws take effect on Jan. 1 in Vermont; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Spokane, Wash. Arizona voters also approved a paid sick-time law, which takes effect in July. The laws in varying fashion mandate that employers allow workers to accrue earned sick time that can be used when they're ill or injured, obtaining health care or takingcare of a sick family member.

Other new labor laws include restrictions on criminal-background checks in hiring. California, for instance, passed a law that makes an applicant's juvenile criminal history off limits to employers, who may not inquire about it or consider it when making hiring decisions. Certain health-care employers, among other exceptions, are given more screening leeway.

Drugs, Guns and Booze

Growing attention to the nation's opioid epidemic has led to new laws aimed at helping people break their addiction. A new Florida insurance law aims to ease access to opioids containing abuse-deterrent properties that make it harder to crush or dissolve the drugs. Illinois is requiring judges to allow defendants assigned to substance-abuse programs to receive prescribed treatment for opioid abuse.

At the same time, the legalization of marijuana spreads further this year. Recreational sales will soon become legal inNevada. California, Maine and Massachusetts residents last fall also voted to legalize marijuana, but it could be more than year before recreational sales are officially permitted in those states.

New firearm laws reflect the country's fierce disagreement about gun rights.

On the one end, blue state California expanded restrictions on semiautomatic weapons to encompass a ban on guns equipped with "bullet buttons," devices allowing magazines to be quickly detached and replaced.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is now allowing some younger adults to get a handgun-carry permit, bringing the minimum age down to 18 from 21. Missouri is the latest state to enact a "constitutional carry" law allowing adults to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the law, but the veto was overridden.

"We're seeing increasing polarization on guns," said Adam Winkler, a firearm-policy expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Everybody thinks there's a stalemate on guns," he said. "There isn't a lot of movement at the federal level. At the state level, there's tremendous activity."

A new Ohio law soon to take effect gives employees the right to store a firearm in a locked vehicle -- or a locked glove compartment -- parked on company property. And in Pennsylvania, hunters will be allowed to shoot animals with semiautomatic rifles.

Other laws cater to beer drinkers. Pennsylvania is "freeing the six-pack, " allowing beer distributors in the state to sell six-packs and single cans. Brewers in Tennessee will now be able to sell beer and cider with much higher alcohol content.

Odds and Ends

Oregon is banning residents from releasing sky lanterns. The miniature, illuminated hot-air balloons were seen as a fire hazard.

Illinois is allowing people to catch catfish by stabbing the creatures with pitchforks, spear gunsor arrows, a method apparently popular in rural areas of the state.

Write to Jacob Gershman at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 04, 2017 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

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