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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For 2024, expect state debates over AI, gender and firearms

Hundreds of abortion rights demonstrators gather in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Jan. 22, 2023. Some of the most contentious issues in the country will dominate the agendas of state legislatures returning to work in the coming days and weeks. (Jamie Kelter Davis/The New York Times)

By Rick Rojas

As Americans have engaged in fierce disagreement over gender expression and sexual orientation, the costs and reach of racism, and the danger and opportunity presented by rapid technological advancement, state legislatures have been one of the most visible and influential arenas for these debates.

It will probably be no different in 2024.

Lawmakers in dozens of states will soon be returning to work, weighing in on some of the most divisive issues confronting the country, including access to transition-related care for young transgender people, abortion and gun rights.

Lawmakers will also consider new regulations on artificial intelligence, a digital frontier that security experts have described as a serious potential threat — and one where state lawmakers could play a vital role by adopting safeguards that could be a model for the federal government to eventually follow.

“Consensus has yet to emerge, but Congress can look to state legislatures — often referred to as the laboratories of democracy — for inspiration regarding how to address the opportunities and challenges posed by AI,” said a report published in November from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and poverty think tank.

Several states, including Florida, South Carolina and New Hampshire, are considering legislation that would govern the use of artificial intelligence in political advertising, particularly “deepfake” technology, which could enable the voice and likeness of a candidate to be co-opted and used in malicious ways.

The South Carolina bill would limit the use of such technology within 90 days of an election and require a disclaimer declaring that the advertisement includes imagery or audio that has been “manipulated or generated by artificial intelligence.”

“The technology that produces this content has advanced rapidly and outpaced government regulation,” Nick DiCeglie, a Republican state senator in Florida who introduced legislation in December, said in a statement.

A recent surge of legislation focused on gender expression and sexual orientation, driven by conservative lawmakers across the country, is also widely expected to continue in 2024.

In Missouri, lawmakers have proposed forbidding educators from referring to a student using pronouns that do not align with their “biological sex” without written permission from a student’s parent.

Lawmakers are also considering strengthening the law the state enacted in 2023 that prevents doctors from prescribing puberty blockers and hormones for transgender minors. The new proposals include removing a sunset clause on the current law, as well as an exception that allowed minors who were already prescribed puberty blockers or hormones before the law went into effect to continue receiving treatment.

Twenty-two states have now passed laws preventing access to transition-related health care for minors; some have been blocked by legal challenges. The laws were part of a flurry of legislation championed by conservative lawmakers over the past two years that focused particularly on the gay and transgender community. It included bills aimed at limiting drag performances and classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

In South Carolina, one of the few Southern states that have not passed a ban on transition-related care for minors, critics of the earlier proposed prohibitions have warned that the fight is not over. “We were able to stave off the worst attacks in 2023, but we need all hands on deck when the state legislature returns in January 2024,” the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina said in a recent statement.

Virginia is another state where a transgender care ban for minors failed in 2023, as did nearly a dozen other bills assailed by critics as “anti-transgender.” But in 2024, with Democrats reclaiming full control of the General Assembly after the November elections, the majority has indicated that abortion protections, limits on access to guns and a higher minimum wage would rank as their biggest priorities.

Democratic lawmakers have proposed beginning the lengthy process of amending the state’s constitution to guarantee abortion rights, as well as passing a law prohibiting the purchase, possession and sale of assault firearms and some ammunition feeding devices.

Other states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, could see proposals for less-stringent gun control measures, including so-called red-flag laws that authorize the temporary removal of firearms from people who are deemed by the courts to be dangerous.

In Washington state, some elected officials — including the state treasurer and lawmakers — are pushing for an ambitious approach to tackling a growing chasm in upward mobility and access to education between upper-income white residents and children who grow up in lower-income families, especially families of color, with a proposal to create trust funds known as “baby bonds.”

The proposal would provide such children with a $4,000 bond by their first birthday, which would be available to them when they reach adulthood to use for college, buying a home or starting a business. Connecticut lawmakers approved baby bonds in 2021, but the implementation was delayed for two years as state officials negotiated funding. Attempts at the federal level have failed.

Washington state had considered a similar measure in 2023, but it failed, with opponents mainly put off by the cost. Supporters said the Washington Future Fund, as the program is officially known, would help with closing an important division in opportunity.

“Income gaps and other institutionalized racist policies and practices prevent Black, Indigenous and other people of color from building generational wealth,” the Economic Opportunity Institute, a think tank based in Seattle focused on economic security, racial equity and sustainability, said of the proposed policy. “The Washington Future Fund would shrink this racial wealth gap and provide longer term economic stability to low-income Washingtonians.”

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