State lawmakers draft more than 1,200 Sept. 11-related bills
By The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS State lawmakers nationwide have responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by drafting more than 1,200 bills, ranging from making terrorism a capital crime to requiring teachers to lead students each day in the Pledge of Allegiance, according to a report.
The bills an average of 24 per state have been or are being considered in state legislatures, according to the report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which was released April 18.
Given that thousands of bills can be introduced for a single state legislative session, the overall number of terrorism-related measures was not terribly high.
"State legislatures have (taken) a thoughtful and reasonable approach following the attacks on America," said conference director William Pound.
Meanwhile, all 50 states have created homeland security offices or committees, and many have tightened security in public buildings by reducing public entrances and installing metal detectors, even in state capitols.
"I was pleased to see all the states dealing with this because every state has specific security issues," said Arizona state Rep. Wesley Marsh, chairman of the NCSL's Task Force on Protecting Democracy, which issued the report.
The new legislative measures cover crime, health, electronic surveillance, government operations and computer crimes, among other issues.
Much of the activity has affected state criminal laws, many of which were devoid of references to terrorism. A measure in Iowa "creates or defines crimes of terrorism" and goes on to make it punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Lawmakers in New York have been working on criminal laws to deal specifically with people who commit crimes such as looting during a terrorist crisis.
A bill introduced in Illinois would create criminal penalties for terrorist hoaxes. Hoaxes were a frequent and costly problem for law enforcement agencies around the country last fall, especially after a handful of anthrax-laced letters resulted in at least five deaths.
Police have responded to numerous cases of threatening letters containing what turned out to be harmless powder.
Just this month, the Louisiana Legislature approved a measure restricting driver's licenses for non-U.S. citizens. Foreigners' driver's licenses will now expire when their visas do, instead of in the normal four-years.
Meanwhile, certain computer-related crimes have since been defined as terrorism by laws passed in Louisiana, Michigan and Virginia, the report said.
Cyber-terrorism is a major concern given that things like floodgates and power plants are run on computers, said Marsh.
Marsh said a number of legislatures are struggling with how to help law enforcement collect and protect sensitive data without infringing on individual liberties. A major point of contention in an anti-terrorism act just passed in Louisiana was a provision that exempts reports on various terrorist-vulnerable spots, such as water systems, from the state's public-records law.
"We've found that the media has to be involved or the public can't hold the government accountable," Marsh said.
At the very least, representatives of the media should have access to sensitive information, even if they are barred from immediately reporting it, so there will be less suspicion of government inappropriately hiding things.
The report also cited numerous pieces of legislation meant to promote patriotism. In Pennsylvania, one bill referred to a House Education Committee would require supervising teachers at public and private schools to begin the school day by leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem. A portion of Michigan's post Sept. 11 homeland security law allows public buildings to display the motto "In God We Trust."
In addition to summarizing state responses to the September attacks, the report seeks to give guidance on how state officials can coordinate security initiatives with federal and local governments.
For example, they can find out where to seek technical help and federal funding for specific security operations, such as setting up decontamination teams at hospitals.
"There's never been that kind of one-stop shopping before, and it's especially important for states trying to deal with threats of bioterrorism because many of them have never dealt with this before," Marsh said.
Marsh called the report released April 18 "a work in progress," and said a final draft will be presented in July to federal homeland security chief Tom Ridge.
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