NH lawmakers at work: Disagree, Demonize, Dominate

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Crossover – when the House and Senate finish work on their own bills and send those approved to the other body for action – is usually a crazy time.

Last week the Senate went two days and well into the evening Thursday to finish work on its bills.

The House’s deadline is this week except for the budget bills, and instead of a lengthy calendar, has 12 bills to decide.

Those 12 bills reflect the atmosphere this session: 11 have minority reports with some debate likely on all 11 and lengthy debates on many.

This has not been a smooth session in either the House or the Senate, but the low point had to be last week when House Minority Leader Dick Hinch called for House Majority Leader Douglas Ley’s resignation over remarks he made calling out several representatives for boorish behavior.

This session has not been the General Court’s finest hour. Hyper-partisanship has dominated session days in Concord along with a rush to demonize anyone who disagrees with you.

The House session Thursday is likely to generate more of the same.

Expect a “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” on the very first bill on the regular calendar but expect it to last much longer than the 30 seconds the actual event lasted.


Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, argues against a bill that would ban guns in safe school zones. Photo/Garry Rayno

Controversial gun bills

Gun bills have been the most controversial this session beginning with the House reinstating a ban on carrying firearms in Representatives Hall.

Hearing rooms have been packed on the half dozen or so bills restricting gun purchases, or carrying firearms, or removing firearms including large crowds in the 400-seat Representatives Hall.

First up Thursday is House Bill 564 to prohibit carrying a gun in a safe school zone unless authorized by school officials, or the person is a member of the law enforcement or active military.

Someone picking up or dropping off a student could have a gun in his or her car as long as it remains in the vehicle .

Violations of the law would be a Class-A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Reading the blurbs by members of the House Criminal Justice Committee, which voted 12-8 in favor of the ban, shows little room for compromise between arguments for safe schools and the constitutional right to carry a firearm.

Similar arguments are likely to dominate on House Bill 696 which would provide vulnerable adults the same protections as domestic violence victims.

“The bill is important and necessary because our criminal statutes do not provide adequate protection for our state’s most vulnerable citizens,” writes the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. “Too often, by the time abuse, neglect, or exploitation can be proven, assets are long gone or the vulnerable adult has been subjected to unsafe conditions for far too long.”

The bill has a bipartisan list of sponsors, but was approved by the committee on the same 12-8 vote.

The minority report by Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown,  focuses on due process rights and a provision that allows a judge to issue a court order to confiscate someone’s weapons if potential harm could result.

“The bill allows for ex-parte hearings, telephonic orders and the seizing of firearms without the defendant even being aware of the accusations that have been made. The bill as drafted violates numerous articles of the New Hampshire Constitution,” Burt writes. “The bill allows for the taking of cars, homes and even pets in addition to firearms.”

These two bills are bound to have lengthy debate.


Marijuana 

Another long debate is likely on House Bill 481, which would legalize, regulate and tax the recreational use of marijuana.

While the House has already approved the “policy” on a 209-147 vote, the House Ways and Means Committee reviewed at length the bill’s revenue generating ability and its tax structure and made significant changes.

The revisions did little to change the mind of committee member Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham, who chaired a marijuana study commission and opposes the legalization. His long and precise minority report details the financial potential pitfalls of legalizing marijuana.

While this bill is controversial there is no partisan divide on whether pot should be legalized. Democrats and Republicans support the bill and oppose legalization.

The three surrounding states–  Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont – have legalized marijuana.

Occupancy fees

Another bill sure to ruffle partisan features would allow communities “with major itinerant traffic” the option of a $2 per day surcharge or occupancy fee on rented rooms.

The theory behind House Bill 641 is communities catering to tourism, business, higher education and healthcare have greater strain on services and infrastructure so the surcharge would help defray local costs.

But the minority in the 12-8 Ways and Means Committee vote say the bill would set a dangerous precedent.

“If a local occupancy fee is allowed, we would be opening up a Pandora’s box for future local fees and taxes on other types of sales,” writes Rep. Charles Burns, R-Milford. “Hotels generate significant property taxes and spur other economic activity without adding significantly to the local education costs.”

No sense adding to the disparity in community property values across the state.

Retirement COLA

Retired public workers would receive a boost in their monthly benefit — something they have not had for a decade — under House Bill 616, which would give New Hampshire Retirement System retirees of five years or more a 1.5 percent cost of living allowance (COLA).

The House Finance Committee lowered the expectations a little by applying the 1.5 percent COLA to the first $50,000 of a person’s retirement benefit, which would only impact the highest earners or about 6 percent of all retirees.

Again on 12-8 vote, the minority of the committee says the system has never had a built-in COLA, which is true as the Legislature used to vote every two years on whether to grant a COLA, and the impact would be felt far beyond state taxpayers.

“In order to pay for this amended bill, the majority raised the cost of retirement system for municipalities, school districts, and state,” writes Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, for the minority. “The minority believes this is an unfunded mandate for municipalities and school districts.”

An unfunded mandate would violate the New Hampshire Constitution, Article 28A, which forbids the state from passing laws requiring local governmental bodies to spend money without the state paying the cost.

Other disagreements

The two parties are also expected to disagree on:

House Bill 630, which would increase some fines for Off Highway Recreational Vehicles (OHRV) and snowmobile violations.

House Bill 116, which would change the classification of some correctional personnel from Class I to Class II of the retirement system. Class II is for police, fire and other emergency or law enforcement personnel.

House Bill 120, which would regulate “body art” establishments.

House Bill 457, which would establish a committee to study the possibility of video taping committee hearings and making them available on the Internet.

House Bill 729, which would establish a citizen’s right-to-know appeals commission and a right-to-know law ombudsman.

No Minority

The one bill without a minority report would combine two current Department of Environmental Services funds into a water resource fund and increase department fees by 74 percent to better meet time deadlines for permits and applications.

The House session Thursday begins at 10 a.m. in Representatives Hall.

Let the jousting begin.


Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com


Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings exclusively for InDepthNH.org in partnership with manchesterinklink.com.