New laws in place for 2012

New laws in place for 2012

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LINCOLN - Although the majority of bills passed by Nebraska lawmakers last session already are on the books, several are set to go into effect Jan. 1.

Among them are laws that will raise state park entry fees, increase the tracking of chemicals used to make methamphetamine, allow low-speed vehicles on some Nebraska roads and dramatically change how the state treats drunken drivers.

The Legislature overwhelmingly voted to override Gov. Dave Heineman's veto of the parks fees bill (LB421). Annual resident permits for state parks and recreation areas will go from $20 to $25 per car, and nonresident permits from $25 to $30. Temporary permits will increase by $1 each.

The governor said increasing park entry fees in a troubled economy would discourage Nebraskans from enjoying the outdoors and visiting the state's attractions.

But Sen. Dave Pankonin of Louisville, the bill's sponsor, said the best way for a statewide resource to continue to produce economic benefits is to increase resources to maintain the parks. The Game and Parks Department has about $34 million in deferred maintenance costs.

The fee increases won't eliminate the deficit, he said, but they can slow its growth and allow park employees to address the most urgent needs.

About 70 percent of the operating and maintenance budget for the parks comes from fees, not taxes, he said. Only about 30 percent comes from the state general fund, which has been declining for years.

The current fee has not increased in five years.

Nebraska has more than 80 state park facilities that provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. About 9 million visits are recorded annually.

Another new law will implement a statewide electronic tracking system for purchases of methamphetamine precursor chemicals at the point of sale. The system is designed to stop people who are stockpiling drugs illegally used to make meth.

The federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 requires businesses to record all sales of pseudoephedrine. In addition, current law restricts the amounts of over-the-counter cold or allergy medicines that can be purchased. But criminals get around these restrictions by buying small quantities at multiple locations, either individually or in groups.

The National Precursor Log Exchange system makes precursor purchase data available to retailers and law enforcement in real time through Internet access. When a person tries to buy a product containing pseudoephedrine in an amount over the legal limit, the system automatically notifies the seller and issues a stop sale alert.

The meth chemicals tracking bill (LB20) was introduced by Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha.

Another new law will let lightweight, low-speed electric cars onto some Nebraska roads. The measure (LB289) creating the law was introduced by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello. It will allow so-called neighborhood electric vehicles onto streets with a posted speed limit of less than 35 mph.

The law is designed to accommodate the market for small, battery-powered vehicles that produce no emissions. It applies to four-wheeled vehicles that weigh less than 3,000 pounds and can reach speeds between 20 and 25 mph.

The law will require drivers to carry liability insurance coverage, hold a valid operator's license and register. All vehicles bought after Jan. 1 would need a title.

Also going into effect are:

n A law that will force most people convicted of first and second DUI offenses to have sensors installed in their vehicles that would keep them from driving while drunk. The law also creates the offense of driving drunk with a child in the vehicle and makes motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child a distinct crime from DUI.

The law, which was pushed by Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk, will heavily incorporate so-called vehicle interlock devices. Before the vehicle can be started, the driver must exhale into the device. If it detects alcohol at a pre-set level, the vehicle will not start. People arrested for DUI will have incentive to immediately apply to have interlock devices, which would allow them to drive to work, medical appointments, probation meetings and other specified locations, rather than lose their licenses temporarily while they wait for an administrative hearing at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

n A law that was pushed by Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch will double fines for most drunken-driving convictions and increase penalties for hit-and-run drivers involved in accidents that cause death or serious injury. The measure also makes it a crime for a repeat drunken driver to drive with as little as 0.02 percent blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is 0.08 percent. People convicted of fifth-offense DUI would be subject to a two-year minimum prison sentence.

n The law pushed by Sen. John Wightman of Lexington that will allow the official record for cases in Nebraska's district courts to be electronic instead of paper. Such records will be available online through the state judicial branch's electronic record system, called JUSTICE. Current law requires district court clerks to make a complete paper record of every case.

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