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House tables effort to create gun law study committee

A second attempt at creating a committee to study the state’s gun laws failed to muster support in the House yesterday. But instead of killing the bill outright, lawmakers placed it on the table, meaning it could come back later in the session with enough support.

Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, devised the 10-member committee, which would have been charged with studying the state’s gun laws, the efficacy of the background check system, the ability of the mentally ill to obtain guns and more. He crafted the committee as an amendment to a gun bill by Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, that would have made it easier for nonresidents to obtain a gun license in New Hampshire.

Much of yesterday’s debate focused on whether the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee’s addition of that amendment was legal. Opponents said it wasn’t close enough to the intent of the original bill and therefore shouldn’t have been attached.

“A simple bill with good intentions was targeted by anti-Second Amendment advocates in the Legislature as a vehicle for their agenda. The bill, as amended, was a dramatic departure from the intent of the original bill and is clearly an attempt to further the discussion on universal background checks and scrutiny on gun owners,” House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, said in a statement after the vote.

But Democrats argued the amendment was fair game because it would have included a study on laws governing nonresidents’ ability to carry guns.

“Whether you think they need to be strengthened or loosened, it’s time for the New Hampshire Legislature to take a comprehensive look about what we are doing well and areas where we might improve,” said Rep. Geoffrey Hirsch, a Bradford Democrat and criminal justice committee member.

But after more than an hour of debate and attempts by Republicans to block the study committee, a majority of House members voted to end debate by tabling the bill. The House could bring the bill back to the floor with a majority vote before March 27 and with a two-thirds majority vote after March 27.

HHS funding

The House voted 185-153 yesterday to send $7 million in surplus money to the Department of Health and Human Services, despite calls from some Republicans for that money to go into the state’s rainy day fund. The total surplus from last session is $15.3 million, and under this bill $8.3 million would go to the rainy day fund.

This vote was largely a chance for the Democratic-led House to make a statement, as the bill is expected to be dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate. Already this session, the Senate passed its own version of the bill to send all of the $15.3 million to the rainy day fund.

There is $9 million in the state’s rainy day fund right now, and the state treasurer said earlier this year that fund should be closer to $70 million, which is 5 percent of the general fund budget.

“There’s always a propensity to spend when the money is there, but prudent New Hampshire people know that just because you have money doesn’t mean you should or have to spend it; they understand that you need to save something for a rainy day,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican.

But Democrats pointed to a $7 million back-of-the-budget cut to the Department of Health and Human Services last year that they say diminishes the department’s ability to provide essential services. The department is facing a $36 million shortfall from where it would like to be, Democrats said.

“Restoring $7 million to Health and Human Services to avoid some of the most draconian cuts and adding $8.3 million to the rainy day fund is a responsible thing to do,” Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat, told his colleagues.

Rep. Stephen Spratt, a Greenville Democrat, also said putting an additional $15 million into the rainy day fund was unlikely to change the state’s bond rating, which he said is the best measure of a state’s financial health.

Tanning

A bill to ban teenagers under the age of 18 from tanning was defeated by a small margin of House members, who voted 175-154 to indefinitely postpone the measure, meaning it can’t come back later this session.

Current New Hampshire law prevents anyone under 14 from tanning and requires parental consent for 14- to 18-year-olds who want to tan. This bill would have disallowed all tanning by anyone under 18 unless recommended by a doctor.

Supporters pointed to evidence on damage from UV rays and testimony from a former New Hampshire beauty pageant winner who said she developed precancerous skin lesions after tanning.

But opponents said parents should have the right to choose whether their children can tan and that state laws already on the books require salons to provide information on the dangers of tanning. Other supporters pointed to things teenagers under 18 can do with parental consent that they saw as more dangerous.

“An abortion would be legal and a tan would not,” noted Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican.

Other action

∎ The House defeated a bill that would have banned communities from buying military-style vehicles such as BearCats, 193-138.

∎ A bill to give more money to public charter schools has been referred to interim study.

∎ On a voice vote, the House approved a bill to include household animals in the domestic violence protection statute.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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