COLUMBUS - Starting today, motorists risk fines of up to $150 if they fail to switch on their headlights when they use their windshield wipers.
Also, adult Ohioans with preexisting conditions are expected to have an easier time affording health-care coverage as new limits on what insurers can charge in premiums take effect.
And taxpayers can earn cost-of-living adjustments in their paychecks without fear the raises will automatically boost them into higher income brackets.
These are among the changes in Ohio law to take effect with the dawn of 2010. The windshield wiper/headlight requirement has been law since July 1, but violators were given warnings during a six-month grace period.
The rule: If rain, mist, snow, or other conditions prompt drivers to operate their windshield wipers, their headlights must be on as well.
"A number of other states have the same law," said Rep. Peter Uvagi (D., Toledo), who inserted the language into the state transportation budget last spring.
"It's been shown to be a real safety factor for folks," he said. "It came from a vacation trip with my family when we went through Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Pennsylvania has this law, and when we were going through heavy rains, my children noted how much safer it seemed to be with the lights on with the windshield wipers."
He noted that many cars manufactured today automatically turn on the headlights with the wipers. Fines for violations would range from $100 to $150, but, like Ohio's mandatory seatbelt law, it would be enforced as a secondary offense. Police must have some other reason to pull over the driver.
Among several health-care reforms included in the state budget signed in mid-July was the gradual implementation of a cap on how much private insurance companies may charge in premiums for basic coverage of people with pre-existing and chronic conditions like cancer and diabetes.
As of today, health insurers will open a window during which uninsured Ohioans with pre-existing conditions can buy individual policies and must keep that window open until the company has taken in the equivalent of 4 percent of its entire individual policy market.
The insurance companies could not charge more than double what they would charge someone of similar age and gender without such conditions.
The cap is slated to gradually drop to 1.5 times what healthy individuals are charged by 2013, a move that the state estimates will cut in half current premiums for high-risk people.
Ohio forged ahead with the reforms last summer while national health-care reform debate was still in its infancy in Congress. The House and Senate versions of reform address this issue and could largely make Ohio's reform a stopgap measure until a final compromise passes Congress.
"National reform is likely to contain more consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions and give some immediate relief for people with pre-existing conditions who can't find affordable coverage in the individual market," said Cathy Levine, executive director of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio. "The Ohio provisions going into effect Jan. 1 will provide yet more options."
The state predicts that the Jan. 1 change could cover 52,000 of the roughly 1.3 million uninsured Ohioans. Those with questions may call the department at 1-800-686-1526 or visit www.insurance.ohio.gov.
After two months of fighting, lawmakers voted to postpone for two years a 4.2 percent income-tax cut set in motion in 2005. But they decided to not interfere with a little-noticed 2003 law that had been delayed over the years.
Beginning with tax year 2010, Ohio's income-tax brackets will be adjusted annually for inflation, a move expected to cost the state about $50 million a year.
"The idea is to eliminate bracket creep," said John Kohlstrand, spokesman for the Department of Taxation. "When you earn more money but are only keeping up with the rate of the cost of living, you could have been pushed into the next tax bracket."
The indexing was passed six years ago as part of a compromise to attract crucial votes for a budget that included a "temporary" penny-on-the-dollar hike in the state sales tax.
The indexing was put off but never repealed as the state dealt with broader tax reform and declining revenues. This time there was no attempt to interfere.
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