Welcome, new laws

If you received a gift card this holiday season, you might want to send
a thank-you note to state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro.

She was the author of one of the more practical new laws that take
effect today. Under Corbett’s legislation, consumers will have a right
to cash in any unused or partially used gift cards when their value
dips below $10.

Many of us have faced the predicament of having a gift card with
just a few dollars left on the balance – and have been forced to decide
whether to apply it to a purchase we wouldn’t otherwise want or toss
the darn thing into a drawer, allowing the issuer to make a little
windfall. It can add up to big money. According to the Consumer Federation of California, Home Depot and Best Buy each reaped $43 million from unredeemed gift cards in 2005 and 2006.

Thanks to Sen. Corbett, more of those dollars will end up in the pockets of the gift recipients.

The new year brings good news to Californians working at the minimum
wage. They will receive a 50-cent raise to $8 an hour today.

Also starting today, it will be illegal to smoke in a vehicle with a
passenger younger than 18. It seems almost inconceivable that it would
take a law to get adults – especially parents – to stop exposing
youngsters to second-hand smoke. Thanks to Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long
Beach, the law and common sense now coincide.

For all of us who are frustrated at those distracted drivers who are
holding cell phones to their ears … we’ll have to be patient. New
laws that will require adults to use hands-free devices while driving –
and prohibit all cell-phone use for drivers under 18 – will not take
effect until July. Credit Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, for his
efforts in overcoming resistance by some telecom companies to push this
potentially life-saving issue.

Another Simitian bill would prohibit employers from forcing their
workers to be implanted with rice-size devices that can track their
whereabouts. Again, the outrage is that it took a law to prevent this
practice – but there were enough examples to justify Simitian’s bill.

One of the harder-fought bills of the session – by Assemblyman Dave
Jones, D-Sacramento – will finally require cities and counties to
assume a portion of the liability when they approve development in
flood-prone areas.

All of these measures, while welcome, pale in comparison with what
the California Legislature did not accomplish in 2007. It was supposed
to be the "Year of Health Care," and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and
Assembly Speaker Fabian N