Minimum wage increases, new rules take effect

As you read this, your neighbor’s minimum-wage salary has gone up, you run a greater risk of getting a ticket for talking on your cellphone while driving your car, you can get in big trouble with that shark fin on your dining room table and if you’ve been convicted of driving drunk it’s going to cost you more to get your license back.

Welcome to 2012, in which many of more than 300 new laws passed last year by the Oregon legislature kicked in a moment past midnight Sunday, Jan. 1.

Following is a summary of some of the new rules:

n Cell phones: The excuse that “I was making a business-related call” is history for most people after legislators closed a loophole in the state’s hand-held cell phone usage ban for drivers.

Now, only police officers and emergency workers, such as tow truck operators, are allowed to talk on a hand-held phone while driving following the removal of a vague provision that permitted driving and talking as “necessary for the person’s job.” Various judges interpreted that exemption in various ways – some rather liberally when it came to people in other professions – hence the change.

Anyone can call 9-1-1 while driving and it is still legal to talk with a hands-free device, such as Bluetooth. The fine for a violation is still $90.

n DUI violators: Also new is a law that requires all those convicted of drunken driving, first-timers or otherwise, to get an ignition interlock device installed in their cars. A driver is required to breathe into an interlock machine before starting the engine and his or her breath may be checked intermittently to keep a vehicle running.

Many convicted drunken drivers are already required to use interlocks, but first-time offenders have been generally sent to diversion programs.

n Payday: Minimum wage has gone up again, a 30-cent jump, from $8.50 to $8.80 this time, after a 10-cent hike last year. The increase could mean $12 more a week for the average person working a minimum-wage job – $624 a year. The boost keeps Oregon as the state with the second-highest minimum wage in the nation, behind Washington, which is $9.04.

n Underage restaurant workers: This law requires restaurant operators to provide proof, when requested by health or liquor control authorities, that their employees are above minimum age requirements. If such evidence can’t be provided, the authorities can force the employee in question to stop working and the failure to provide proof is considered prima facie evidence that a violation of minimum age laws has occurred.

n Bounced paychecks: If an employee’s paycheck bounces in Oregon, the check’s recipient is already permitted to sue for up to triple the mount for which the check is drawn. A new law, though, permits the Bureau of Labor and Industries to impose additional penalties and subjects the employer who wrote the bad check to statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

n Tax break: Oregon residents making more than $125,000 a year — $250,000 for joint filers — will see some tax relief as top rates drop under voter-approved Measure 66, the controversial referendum that raised taxes on people making at least $125,000. The highest personal income tax rate will be 9.9 percent in 2012, lower than they’ve been for the last three years, but still higher than the rate was before Measure 66.

n Shark ban: Shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, will be off the menu thanks to this law, which makes it illegal to possess or sell shark fins in Oregon, in an effort to quash demand for illegally killed sharks.

n Green incentive gone: Most energy-efficient appliances are no longer eligible for tax credits; same goes for alternative-fuel vehicles and vehicle conversion equipment.

n Gift cards: As of Jan. 1, if you have a gift card that has been used at least once and whose value has slipped below $5, you can redeem it for cash, per a new state law.

n Tell the truth: Filing a false report of child abuse to the Department of Human Services or a law enforcement agency will be punishable by a maximum of one year’s imprisonment, $6,250 fine, or both.

n Tell what you saw: Computer technicians who believe they may have spotted images of child pornography while repairing a computer are now required to notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the state Department of Human Services or law enforcement. Failure to do so could result in a misdemeanor charge.
The measure updates an older law that requires film processors to report suspected child pornography.

n Free college for foster kids: Oregon universities and colleges are now required to waive tuition and fees for foster youths under 25 who are applying to their programs and the Oregon Student Assistance Commission must give foster children preference for Oregon Opportunity Grants. Oregon is the 17th state to create such a waiver.

n Idling trucks: The only notable piece of trucking-related legislation passed by Oregon lawmakers last year, this law prohibits commercial trucks over 10,000 pounds from idling the engine for more than five minutes in a 60-minute period on premises open to the public.

There are exceptions, such as when a vehicle is loading or unloading, or when it is being repaired or is stopped in traffic – or equipment necessary for temperature control in the cab or cargo unit when the outside temperature is above 75 or below 50 degrees.