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New year brings new Illinois laws

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 9:24 a.m. CST

(MCT) — In Illinois, weighty issues such as government worker pension reform and the state's precarious financial situation remain unresolved heading into the new year. State lawmakers, however, did manage to ban the sale of shark fins and slap a new tax on strip clubs.

The two measures are among more than 150 laws taking effect Tuesday. That number is down by about 50 compared with a year ago — 2012 was an election year, and with all House and Senate seats on the ballot, self-preservation was a primary focus for many at the Capitol.

Still, now on the books are laws to increase license plate sticker fees, prevent employers from requesting access to workers' social networking accounts and crack down on drivers who illegally use handicap parking placards.

Lawmakers also sought additional protections for some of the state's most vulnerable, including tougher penalties for parents who don't report their children missing to police in a timely manner. That legislation was inspired by the death of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, of Florida, whose mother waited a month before alerting officials that her daughter was missing in a case that captured the nation's attention.

Here's a closer look at some of the new laws:

Pocketbook issues

Following years of budget cuts that led to severe maintenance problems at state parks, lawmakers approved several new fees aimed at easing the money crunch. Drivers will see $2 tacked on to the cost of a license plate sticker, and commercial fishermen and those who want to use all-terrain vehicles on state land also will see new fees.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources hopes to raise as much as $55 million a year to chip away at a roughly $750 million backlog in maintenance projects at parks. The fees were proposed as an alternative to charging admission to visit Illinois parks, though out-of-state visitors still may be asked to pay an entrance fee.

Meanwhile, strip clubs that sell booze or let people drink alcoholic beverages will face a new tax. Club operators have the option of adding a $3 admission fee or paying taxes based on how much money they make. A strip club bringing in $2 million or more a year would pay a $25,000 tax. Ones making $500,000 to $2 million would pay $15,000 a year. Establishments making less than $500,000 would face a $5,000 tax.

The money will be used to support rape crisis centers, which have had funding cuts the past several years.

Consumer issues

Land-line telephone customers could see some relief after lawmakers outlawed "cramming," a practice in which third-party companies place unwanted and unauthorized charges on phone bills.

The surprise charges often go unnoticed, but can cost customers $5 to $45 for services such as voice mail and extended warranties that they never signed up for. The charges usually appear after customers provide their phone number online for things like free recipes or pizzas. Companies use the phone number as a sort of credit card, passing along fees that appear on a customer's bill.

Historically, phone companies looked the other way because they got a piece of the profits, but that changed after the practice drew wider attention. Phone companies helped negotiate the cramming ban in Illinois, the second state to make the practice illegal. The law doesn't apply to cellphones, however.

Illinois also will become the first state without an ocean shore to ban the sale and possession of shark fins, a delicacy in Chinese culture. Environmentalists said the measure is necessary to protect shark populations.

The workplace

A new measure will make it easier for spouses of military members to get professional licenses when they move to Illinois. State regulators will be able to issue temporary licenses for those who are credentialed in other states to practice things like nursing and plumbing. That means family members of military personnel can begin immediately searching for jobs instead of waiting months for the state to vet their qualifications. The effort was inspired by first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to support military families.

Employers won't be allowed to request passwords to social networking sites of workers or job applicants, or they could face fines that start at $200. The idea is to protect the privacy of employees who use Facebook and similar sites. Bosses still can request user names to review public posts, but are not allowed to seek access to restricted portions of an account. It's unclear how many companies in Illinois were asking workers or prospective employees for such passwords.

Crime and punishment

Drivers who illegally use handicap parking plates and decals will face greater fines and penalties, including the possibility of having their licenses revoked. Fines for the unauthorized use of placards for people with disabilities will increase to $600 from $500. Fines for those caught making counterfeit placards or using parking passes in the absence of a qualified holder double to $1,000.

Additionally, doctors who submit false paperwork to help someone get a disabled plate or placard who doesn't need it will face a new $1,000 fine. Those who use handicap placards of people who have died face an even tougher punishment, with fines starting at $2,500 combined with a mandatory suspension of driving privileges for six months. Repeat offenders could have their license revoked for one year. Enforcement is key, however.

Parents and guardians of children 13 or younger who go missing could face felony charges if they fail to alert authorities within 48 hours. The time frame narrows to one hour for adults responsible for children 2 and younger. Dubbed Caylee's Law, the measure is in response to the 2008 death of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, who was missing for a month before police were alerted. Casey Anthony was charged with her daughter's death, but a jury found her not guilty in July 2011.

It also will be easier for police officers to obtain permission to secretly record suspects when investigating drug crimes. Instead of getting a court order to eavesdrop from a judge, they can seek approval from a state's attorney. Advocates say it will speed up a process that sometimes takes so long a crime is committed before police can get it recorded.

Child victims of sex trafficking will have more time to seek justice under a new law that extends the statute of limitations for those crimes to one year after the victim turns 18 or three years after the crime was committed if the victim was 16 or 17. Before, victims had only three years to seek legal action after the crime.

Meanwhile, judges will have the ability to assign first-time, nonviolent offenders to a two-year diversion program instead of sending them to jail. The plan will operate similarly to probation and allow those who successfully complete community service, drug counseling or other programs to have their criminal record expunged. The idea is to keep low-level offenders out of prison and help them find jobs.

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