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Hundreds of new laws take effect in Washington

OLYMPIA – Same-sex couples gain dozens of new rights, cougar hunts with dogs are expanded, and authorities will work to track gang activity statewide.

Those are just a few of the 280 new laws taking effect at midnight Thursday, when the bulk of the more than 320 measures lawmakers passed this year kick in.

Domestic partners registered with the state will get more than 170 of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, another step toward what supporters hope will eventually be full recognition of same-sex unions.

“It’s an exciting step forward,” said Josh Friedes, advocacy director of the gay-rights group Equal Rights Washington. “This new law provides a significant basket of new rights, nevertheless, the safety net for our families remains inadequate.”

The underlying domestic partnership law, passed last year, already provides hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations and inheritance rights when there is no will.

In a provision similar to California law, unmarried heterosexual senior couples also are eligible for domestic partnerships if one partner is at least 62. The provision was included to help seniors who are at risk of losing pension rights and Social Security benefits if they remarry.

The enhanced measure makes dozens of changes to state law, including requiring domestic partners of public officials to submit financial disclosure forms, just as the spouses of heterosexual officials do. It also gives domestic partners the same spousal testimony rights that married couples have, allowing domestic partners the right to refuse to testify against each other in court.

The process of ending a domestic partnership also changes. The partnerships can be ended by the secretary of state only in the first five years, with several more restrictions relating to children, real property or unpaid debts. All other partnerships would be dissolved in superior court – similar to conventional divorce.

“It’s a more serious commitment than the previous statute was,” said Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University. “People ought to think a little harder before they register, just as people ought to think a littler harder before they marry.”

Also taking effect is the extension of a controversial pilot program that allows cougar hunts with dogs. The program will last another three years, on top of the four years it has been in place. The bill also allows all counties to join the program, instead of just the five currently enrolled.

Supporters said the measure addresses safety threats that cougars pose to people and livestock, but animal-rights activists contended using dogs is cruel and unfair, and that the big cats’ population is declining.

Voters banned the practice in 1996, by passing Initiative 655.

Another new law is meant to help protect the endangered orca. It will now be illegal to get within 300 feet of a southern orca, as is intercepting or failing to put a boat into neutral within that distance, or feeding orcas.

An effort to help local enforcement agencies in preventing and combating street crime also takes effect. The measure authorizes the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to provide grants to local law enforcement for combating street gang activity and dealing with “tagging” and other graffiti.

The new law creates a gang database to help track gang activity statewide. It makes it a crime for adults to involve juveniles in a felony offense and adds extra jail time for gang-related crime.

It also makes gang tagging and graffiti a crime and allows property owners to recover civil penalties and costs, allows the Office of Crime Victims Advocates to set up a program to help witnesses in gang trials, and directs the Department of Corrections to study and recommend “best practices” for dealing with gangs and recruitment behind bars.

Other laws taking effect Thursday:

•Allowing as many as 30 grocery stores across the state to offer a limited number of beer- and wine-tasting events in the store.

•Allowing honorably discharged Vietnam veterans who left high school before graduation to receive a high school diploma.

• A measure to expand the state’s DNA database to require collection of DNA samples from people convicted of crimes like stalking, sexual misconduct and patronizing a prostitute takes effect Thursday as well.

•Expanding the state’s three-strikes law to include any out-of-state conviction for a felony offense with a finding of sexual motivation if the minimum sentence imposed was 10 years or more.

•A wide-ranging measure that sets up a farm-to-school program in the state Department of Agriculture, sets up a grant program for schools, and sets up a pilot program that would allow farmers at farmers markets to accept electronic payment cards, including food stamp cards. The bill would also set up a farmers-to-food-banks pilot program that would have food banks contract with local farmers for fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat to be distributed to low-income people.