Taxes, terrorism and teddy bears

Monday, July 1, 2002

Smokers in six states will pay more for their habit as of Monday, nudity with "artistic value" will no longer be off-limits to minors in Utah, and teddy bears will have official status as the state toy of Mississippi.

Hundreds of new laws take effect with the July 1 start of fiscal years in many states. The laws reflect legislators' concerns with the burdensome threats of terrorism and budget deficits, spiked with a few less-weighty matters.

Florida lawmakers, for example, found time to stipulate that cooking-school students under the legal drinking age can taste small amounts of wine during class -- although they will be expected to spit it out after swishing it around their mouth.

Budget woes dominated many recent legislative sessions, and smokers were a preferred target in efforts to raise more revenue. As of Monday, the per-pack cigarette tax will rise by 49 cents in Vermont, 46 cents in Kansas, 40 cents in Indiana and Illinois, 31 cents in Ohio and 12 cents in Louisiana.

A measure raising the per-pack tax by 70 cents in New Jersey was awaiting the signature of the governor, who proposed the increase.

Kansas also is increasing inheritance, sales and business taxes, part of a bill aimed at raising $252 million for the state.

Though terrorism already is covered by numerous federal laws, several legislatures -- prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks -- passed their own anti-terrorism measures.

Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and South Dakota are designating terrorism a state crime; Oklahoma also outlawed committing a terrorist hoax, and Iowa outlawed possession of anthrax spores. Georgia is giving authorities broader powers to conduct wiretaps and listen to cell phone conversations.

In Georgia -- despite one lawmaker's plea that there were more pressing topics to tackle -- the legislature passed a bill recognizing grits as the state's official prepared food. The breakfast staple joins peanuts, peaches and Vidalia sweet onions as Georgia's designated food symbols.

Grits are popular far beyond Georgia, but Mississippi claims a distinctive reason for declaring teddy bears the state toy.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of a hunting expedition by President Theodore Roosevelt in the Mississippi Delta. After three days without success, the president was offered a captive bear to kill, and he refused.

A political cartoonist depicted Roosevelt's humane act, and toy bears thereafter became widely known as teddy bears.

Hillman Frazier was one of two state senators opposing the bill, calling it a frivolous distraction at a time lawmakers should be working harder to support Medicaid and education.

"If we're going to adopt a state toy, based on what I've seen this session, it should be the football because we're good at punting," Frazier said.

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