New laws take effect for 2014

JUNEAU — Several new laws are taking effect in Alaska with the new year, the biggest of which centers on the state’s oil production tax.

The oil-tax cut pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell and passed by lawmakers in April was the biggest legislative story of 2013 and could be one of the biggest political stories of the coming year: The tax cut is the subject of a referendum, and voters will decide in August whether to keep or repeal it.

Supporters see the tax cut as a way to encourage new investment and production, and say it is already working, but critics call it too big a give and blame it for a crash in state revenue.

The current fiscal year is divided between the former tax system and the new one; provisions of the new tax took effect Jan. 1.

Other laws that take effect with the start of the new year include:

• ELECTION CHANGES: The primary will be moved up a week, to the third Tuesday in August, of every even-numbered year under a bill that makes a number of changes to state election rules and procedures. When it comes to filling vacancies for U.S. Senate or House, a special election still could be called, but if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff would be held between the two highest vote getters. Political parties paying for print, video, radio or other communications will not be required to list their top contributors in those messages. Precinct or ballot watchers must be U.S. citizens.

• SMARTPHONE INSURANCE: A new law spells out rules for insurers to provide insurance for portable electronic devices, including cellphones, laptops and tablets. The idea is to provide regulation in the market to protect consumers, since insurance for the devices is often sold where the devices are purchased and not typically through insurance companies, according to statement from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, that accompanied the legislation.

• NEWBORN SCREENING FOR HEART DEFECTS: The measure, from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, was inspired by his niece, Nisi, who was diagnosed with congenital heart disease following her birth in Japan. Micciche has said that screening newborns for heart defects in that country is standard practice, and the law taking effect in Alaska would require such screening of babies here as close to 24 hours after birth as possible. Doctors, midwives, nurses or other qualified professionals who attend births as part of their normal practice must provide information on the screening to parents or legal guardians, who can refuse the screening. Until Jan. 1, 2016, the law will not apply to providers of birthing services who attend fewer than 20 births a year.

• MILITARY YOUTH ACADEMY: Rep. Tammie Wilson’s measure gives the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs the authority to establish and operate the Alaska Military Youth Academy, previously known as the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy, to produce graduates “with the values, skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults.” The measure repeals the old funding formula for the academy, aimed at helping at-risk youth who have dropped out of school, and would instead allow for a direct appropriation, which, according to a release from the governor’s office, would be based on the number of graduates.

• MILITARY CREDIT: Provisions of a measure taking effect Tuesday would allow for relevant military experience to count toward occupational licensing requirements, and for military training and education to count toward college degrees or technical programs at institutions that otherwise accept transfer credits or hours.