California's New Laws Serve as Policy Experiments

On Jan. 1, 2013, a Dream Act and cap-and-trade legislation for greenhouse gases will become law in California Photograph by Charles Benes/Getty Images

On the eve of 2013, state officials are busy readying for tens of thousands of new laws that go into effect on the first day of the year. The nation’s most populous state, California, is  serving as a laboratory for several legislative measures, embarking on a number of policy experiments that were too controversial to be implemented on the national scale.

At the top of that list is California’s cap and trade program for greenhouse gases. Starting January 1, large power plants and industrial facilities in the state will have to either lower their emissions or be forced to buy credits at auction. The credits, called allowances, make the cost of polluting more expensive. Federal cap-and-trade legislation failed in Congress in 2009.

California is also pressing ahead with its own version of the Dream Act. The Dream Act would have granted a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants under age 30 who came to the U.S. before they were 16, finished high school, and don’t have criminal records. The legislation languished in Congress for years, and was blocked by Republicans when it came to a vote in 2010. Hoping to score points with Hispanics in the run-up to the presidential election, President Obama initiated a short-term workaround in the form of a two-year waiver program for this group. On January 1, California will go further than the federal government, by allowing these young people to receive financial aid from state universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, some Southern states continue to tighten immigration laws. Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia will now require private employers to enroll in the federal E-Verify program, an optional online system that checks whether potential hires are eligible to work in the U.S. The laws aren’t likely to have much practical effect because the program is so easily defrauded.

California, not surprisingly, has gone in the opposite direction. Starting Jan. 1, the state will prohibit local officials from requiring employers to use E-Verify unless the federal government mandates it. Employers in California will also be hamstrung by a new consumer protection law that prohibits them from using a credit report to evaluate job candidates.

The election may be over, but a number of controversial voter ID laws will take effect on Tuesday. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, new laws requiring voters to present photo IDs will go into effect in Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas. Tennessee will require election official to identify possible non-citizens who are registered to vote and require them to present proof of citizenship at the polls.

Those troubled by the idea that states are moving in opposite directions on big questions of national policy might take some comfort in that rumor that Congress plans to debate immigration reform this spring. But if the fiscal cliff fight is any indicator, the debate promises to be a long slog, and lawmakers may end up with nothing to show for it.

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