By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Laws that require voters to present photo identification at the polls, recognize same-sex civil unions and aim to restrict illegal immigration are among the state measures taking effect on New Year's Day.
Measures passed in 2011, which numbered nearly 40,000 across the country, often reflected the priorities of Republicans, who held majorities in most state legislative chambers and held the highest number of seats nationally by the party since 1928.
"When Republicans finally got in control in many states ... they were able to put those things on the table and pass them pretty quickly," said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Immigration was a big issue in 2011. A number of states enacted crackdowns geared toward driving away illegal immigrants, only to see key parts of those efforts halted by federal courts.
But starting on Sunday, many businesses in Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia will be required to enroll in the federal E-Verify program to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.
On the flip side, a new law taking effect in California will prohibit private businesses from being required to use E-Verify except in cases where federal law mandates it.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said more states are expected to pursue curbs on illegal immigration in 2012, with lawmakers looking to the Supreme Court's ruling on Arizona's immigration law in its upcoming term for guidance on how expansive state measures can be.
"They're extremely frustrated by the lack of action by the federal government on this issue," Conference spokesman Jon Kuhl said.
VOTER ID RULES
Kuhl said additional states were also likely to follow in the footsteps of Kansas and Tennessee, where voters will now have to show photo identification before casting a ballot, or Rhode Island, which will require a non-photo identification from voters.
Well over half of all states already require some form of identification from voters. Proponents say such measures help prevent voter fraud, while critics argue the laws disproportionately affect minorities' ability to vote.
The Justice Department last week blocked South Carolina's new voter photo identification law due to such concerns.
"With the presidential election coming up, it's certainly not an issue that's going to be going away," Kuhl said.
New laws in Delaware and Hawaii will make same-sex couples eligible for civil unions in the new year and allow them the same legal rights and benefits as married couples, the NCSL said.
And a first-in-the-nation law in California will require public schools to teach students about the historical accomplishments of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, as well as people with disabilities.
California will be the first state to bar teenagers under age 18 from using tanning beds, while North Dakota will prohibit drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones in their cars and all drivers from text messaging.
A Nevada law will also ban all drivers from texting and using handheld phone devices.
Low-wage workers will see their hourly pay increase on Sunday in the eight states that automatically adjust their minimum wage at the start of each year to keep up with inflation.
Wage increases will take effect in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Experts said 2012 is likely to bring more state budget cuts and legislative agendas that are easy on the wallet.
"The budget situations are just so tough in so many states that they are going to be looking for things that don't cost a lot of money," Burden said.
(Additional reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)