Hot on the horizon: here's a look at 10 emerging policy issues sure to heat up in the year ahead.

Author:Lays, Julie
Position:EMERGING TRENDS
 
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The legislative landscape was markedly different when State Legislatures magazine first began forecasting the top issues lawmakers were likely to tackle back in 1999. But the topics were amazingly similar.

Several state legislatures pondered whether to use their historically large budget surpluses on tax refunds or to bolster rainy-day funds. Talk about the good old days. But the focus for most everyone that year centered on one cataclysmic event: Would we survive Y2K?

The rest of the 1999 list, however, resonated with many of the same tough issues that comprise legislative agendas today: education, health care costs, taxes, Medicaid, welfare, technology. Indeed, every issue on our 1999 list maintains at least a measure of traction today. Well, maybe not the surpluses, hut we can hope, can't we?

If we were to list the top state policy issues of 2014, they would be tax reform, transportation funding, gun laws, the high cost of higher education, voter registration, distracted driving, teacher quality, hydraulic fracturing, juvenile justice realignment, Common Core educational standards, as well as Medicaid expansion, health insurance exchanges and other elements of federal health reform. But we're not going to do that.

For this edition, we decided it would be more interesting to examine emerging issues--new ideas sure to gain more legislative attention in the year ahead. Some of them you may not have even heard about, but are sure to soon.

Americans love their privacy, and privacy concerns are woven throughout many of these emerging trends. New technology--from social networking to online shopping to drone surveillance--is threatening the cherished right like never before. Policymakers are being asked to balance security concerns with personal safety, and to decide where to draw the line at what's enough. And although a majority of state legislatures considered some type of privacy law in 2013, the concerns are far from gone. What's settled today is not necessarily so for tomorrow, as researchers continue to create technology capable of doing things most of us have not yet even imagined.

Debate over privacy rights will continue as lawmakers ask: What's the best way to protect personal information collected by mobile apps and websites? Should limits be placed on biometric identifiers (measurable biological characteristics or traits used to identify individuals) collected by government? Should we give up some public safety security to limit the use of drones and surveillance cameras?

As many of the following emerging issues heat up, lawmakers will continue to look for the best ways to promote their benefits, guard against any possible downsides, and still protect individuals' privacy and the public's safety. No small task by any measure.

  1. DRONES

    When the discussion centers on privacy, the topic of drones inevitably comes up. Unmanned aerial vehicles, as they're also called, are good at an impressive number of tasks, including a very controversial one--spying on people. At least 13 states have passed drone-related laws, many aimed at protecting residents from illegal snooping and unwarranted police surveillance.

    Drones--pilotless aircraft that typically carry cameras or fire weapons--are used by the military to fight terrorists and by police to photograph crime scenes and look for suspects. They're also being developed to film movies, spot wildfires, watch oil pipelines, monitor avalanches, survey crops and even herd sheep. Dominoes Pizza is testing a drone to deliver its pies, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation uses drones to deliver vaccines to remote African villages.

    But drones raise complex privacy, safety and regulatory concerns. Simple drones are easy to build and available in mail-order kits for a few hundred dollars. Many lawmakers worry they'll fall into a number of undesirable hands--from inconsiderate neighbors to international terrorists. Others fear drones are ripe for abuse by police and Big Brother governments.

    Lawmakers in at least 43 states have grappled with such issues, introducing some 118 drone-related bills and resolutions in 2013 alone.

    Among the 13 states with drone laws already on the books, Florida's allows police to forgo a warrant in emergencies such as terrorist attacks or "when swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property." Illinois' drone law is similar to Florida's, but it stipulates that police must destroy all drone-gathered information within 30 days. Texas' law enumerates 19 lawful uses for unmanned aircraft and creates two new crimes: the illegal use of an unmanned aircraft to capture images and the offense of possessing or distributing the image, both class C misdemeanors.

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