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Bevy of legal changes on horizon for Pennsylvanians

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 10:12 p.m.

Pennsylvanians will catch up with talking pigs in 2014. And we'll gain the right to buy potatoes in 8-pound bags.

A flurry of legislative activity in Harrisburg resulted in Gov. Tom Corbett signing nearly 50 laws since Nov. 20, more than half of which take effect in January and February.

Some brought fanfare, such as a package of child protection laws prompted by the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University and the sweeping transportation bill that became Act 89.

“People will notice the transportation bill,” Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said of the $2.3 billion legislation that funds projects and changes fuel taxes starting on Wednesday. “People are going to see bridges being worked on. They'll see barriers, signs and clearing the way for work.”

Other laws passed quietly as legislators pushed to change rules they thought were out of touch.

People who have seen the Geico insurance commercials in which Maxwell the talking (and driving) pig gets pulled over might assume anyone can show police their proof of insurance on a smartphone.

“It's not allowed in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Hollidaysburg, whose legislation will change that on Feb. 21.

Act 132 outlines rules for showing electronic forms of insurance cards during a traffic stop.

Catching up with technology required negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police as the union and legislative staff worked out legal issues, Eichelberger said. Police can't be sued if they break the phone or delete information while acting “in good faith.” And they can't search the phone for other information.

“Maybe there was an email from your drug dealer on there. (Police) are not supposed to look at that, or use the phone for any other purpose,” Eichelberger said.

An obscure law limits the sale of potatoes to packages of certain weights: less than 3 pounds, and in bags of 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 50 and multiples of 100 pounds.

Act 124 will eliminate that part of the Agriculture Code on Feb. 16, allowing sales of any size bag.

“I see it as one small (victory) for less government,” said Sen. David G. Argall, R-Schuylkill County, the bill's sponsor. “Let's let the marketplace decide how many potatoes we can buy in a bag.”

Farmers might rejoice about the passage of Act 130, which takes effect on Feb. 21 and will remove “hoop houses” from tax rolls.

Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley, introduced the bill so that taxing bodies can't consider as permanent structures the arched frames covered with plastic that people use to protect plants or livestock.

“That will make a real difference for farmers,” said Zeb Bartels, manager of Clarion River Organics, a cooperative in Sligo, Clarion County. “I heard people saying we need to get this changed.”

Seven laws taking effect in the next two months change the Crimes Code, in most cases increasing potential punishment for certain crimes.

On Feb. 16, luring or attempting to lure a child younger than 13 into a car will become a felony.

“I was shocked that it was only a misdemeanor,” said Rep. Mike Regan, R-York County, who introduced what became Act 116. It is among 10 child-protection laws that Corbett signed on Dec. 18. Several will take effect later this year.

Act 97, effective on Jan. 26, will increase the penalty for stealing a child's identity. Act 131 will do the same for chronic retail thieves.

Drivers will notice impacts from the transportation bill during the next five years, but a few portions take effect right away. On Wednesday, the state raised an artificial cap on the wholesale price of fuel for calculating a tax that oil companies pay and eliminated a 12-cent flat tax at the gas pump.

Miskin and others said they don't know what effect that will have on the cost of gasoline, which had an average price on Tuesday of $3.45 per gallon in the Pittsburgh area and $3.49 a gallon statewide, according to GasBuddy.com. They expect companies to pass some, all or even more costs on to drivers.

Increases in fees for driver's license and vehicle registration renewals won't become law until July 2015, PennDOT said.

Beginning on Feb. 24, motorcycle riders will be able to buy vertical license plates for $20. But a law taking effect three days before that will limit the number of times applicants can seek a motorcycle learner's permit to three times over five years.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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