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House sends death penalty repeal back to Senate, passes pay equity bill

House members voted 226-110 yesterday afternoon to send a repeal of the death penalty back to the Senate.

“I think that the death penalty is something that’s an ongoing discussion. The more we learn about it, the more we see that it doesn’t work,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor. “It doesn’t work for families, it doesn’t make it any safer. It’s kind of a broken system.”

This was one of several significant votes on the House’s second-to-last day of the session. Members also passed a paycheck fairness bill aimed at limiting the wage gap between men and women and a bill altering the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, which was recently declared unconstitutional. Lawmakers will return today to vote on all remaining bills.

The House overwhelmingly passed the death penalty repeal bill earlier this year, but senators tabled it after they were unable to break a 12-12 tie. Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee voted last week to try passing repeal again by tacking it onto a Senate bill clarifying the definition of the crime of burglary. Senators have three options: accept the amended bill, reject it or ask for a committee of conference. The underlying bill clarifies what constitutes the crime of burglary.

The latest death penalty debate came on the heels of a recently botched execution in Oklahoma and the death of Brentwood police Officer Steve Arkell on Monday night. Arkell was shot and killed when responding to a domestic violence incident between a father and son. Killing a police officer is one of the crimes that can carry a death sentence in New Hampshire, and many proponents of keeping it on the books have argued it’s an important mechanism for protecting law enforcement.

The police said they believe Arkell’s killer was the son, who died in the fire, so the death penalty would not apply in his case. But Cushing acknowledged Arkell’s death during his floor speech.

“I can’t help but be conscious of the fact that the flags are half-staff throughout the state of New Hampshire, and it signifies that a murder has taken place,” Cushing said. “It’s been an example of how homicide just rips. It rips the heart out of families, it rips the heart out of a community.”

Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican who opposes repeal, also spoke about Arkell.

“We are fortunate that the officer’s killer already got the death sentence . . . but the shame is we lost another officer at a home, and almost a second” officer, Baldasaro said. “We need protection.”

Paycheck equity

A paycheck equity bill championed by Democratic House Speaker Terie Norelli and Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen is headed to Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk.

House members passed the bill 233-103 yesterday after senators passed it 23-0 earlier this session. The bill bans employers from discriminating against employees for discussing their wages and extends the time period for people to bring complaints against their employers to three years after discovering a pay violation.

Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, stepped down from the speaker’s chair to talk briefly and vote on the bill.

“In order to make progress, we must give women the tools to seek justice, and we must promote a climate in which discrimination is no longer tolerated,” Norelli said. She encouraged House members to support the bill because “New Hampshire has always been a leader when it comes to all aspects of equality.”

Before passing the bill, House members rejected an amendment by the Criminal Justice Committee that would have reduced the complaint period from three years to one year.

Rep. Shannon Chandley, an Amherst Democrat, urged all House members to think about the women in their lives when voting on the bill.

“We must not become complacent because we no longer feel the necessity to advocate for ourselves or because we think that the battle has been won,” she said. “It is imperative that we recognize the urgency with which we must address the wage gap.”

In previous debates, opponents argued the wage gap was not a significant problem in New Hampshire.

Medicaid Enhancement Tax

After a quick debate, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that alters the Medicaid Enhancement Tax. Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican who is behind the bill, reminded his colleagues that passing this bill is just the first step toward finding a solution to possible constitutional problems with the tax. Senators will vote on their own fix to the tax today, and both bodies will go to a committee of conference to iron out differences and come to a solution.

“This bill takes us to the table,” Hess said. “It puts more cards on the table from the House of Representatives.”

The state has been levying the tax on inpatient and outpatient hospital services since 1991, and this year’s state budget is expecting $145 million in revenue from the tax. But two lower courts recently deemed it unconstitutional, in part because nonhospitals that provide the same services aren’t taxed for those services.

The House’s version of the bill first aims to change the language in state law governing the tax to justify why hospitals are taxed and other health care facilities are not. It also proposes broadening the tax but lowering the rate, which may solve issues of fairness regarding who is taxed.

A Senate solution aims to phase out the tax entirely, while giving more money in Medicaid payments back to hospitals.

Other business

∎ House members passed a bill requiring third-party groups to disclose how much they spend on political activities and where the money is going. The House version is slightly different than a version already passed by the Senate. The bill requires all groups that spend money advocating for the passage or defeat of specific issues of candidates to file reports with the secretary of state’s office that disclose how the money is being spent. Nonprofit groups that spend on issue advocacy are not required to disclose their donors, and this bill does not change that.

∎ The House again rejected a move by Republicans to send all $15 million in surplus money from last year’s biennium into the rainy day fund. Democrats want to see $7 million to go to the state Department of Health and Human Services, meaning the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate have been unable to agree.

∎ A bill that bans employers from discriminating against victims of domestic violence passed the House 190-137 and is now headed to Hassan’s desk.

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

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