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Senate panel looks at House-endorsed later last call for N.H. bars

New Hampshire bars could stay open until 2 a.m., an hour later than they can now, under a bill that passed the House two weeks ago and went before a Senate committee yesterday.

“This is a pro-business bill,” said Rep. Mark Warden, a Goffstown Republican and the legislation’s prime sponsor, during a hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee. “If this bill were a fine wine, it would have a pro-business bouquet and a nice, slight liberty finish.”

But the bill is opposed by the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, the state Department of Safety, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission and others who say a later last call could mean more over-drinking and related public safety problems.

Eddie Edwards, the liquor commission’s enforcement chief, said the “high-risk drinking population” of people aged 21 to 25 are most likely to take advantage of extended late-night drinking hours. The result, he said, is “a recipe for disaster.”

He added, “I think we have a well-balanced law. I think it makes sense.”

Committee members heard an hour and 15 minutes of testimony yesterday, but didn’t debate or vote on the bill.

Warden’s bill would allow liquor sales at bars and restaurants until 2 a.m., instead of the current closing time of 1 a.m. Towns and cities would have the option of adopting an ordinance to keep the local closing time at 1 a.m., and Warden noted any bar could opt to close earlier if they wished.

The bill passed the House on March 21 on a 208-123 vote.

Both supporters and opponents expressed concern yesterday about the bill’s opt-out provision. Mike Somers, president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Lodging & Restaurant Association, said it could create a “patchwork” of different closing times across the state, and Edwards said that could make enforcement efforts more difficult.

More broadly, Warden and other supporters said the bill would help businesses and their employees. Warden said 46 states – including Massachusetts and Vermont – have later closing times than New Hampshire’s 1 a.m., prompting some people to cross the border when they go out for drinks.

“Let’s keep the patrons here in New Hampshire, patronizing our businesses,” Warden said.

He and others said the state’s laws against serving liquor to minors and over-serving patrons would still be enforced.

And Rep. Keith Murphy, a Bedford Republican and owner of Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester, estimated the later closing time could mean an additional $5 million a year for the state in revenue from the rooms-and-meals tax. But Tricia Lucas, advocacy director for New Futures, warned there’s been no formal study of the bill’s potential impact on state revenues.

Law enforcement groups and the Department of Safety oppose the bill, saying it could increase alcohol-related crimes like impaired driving, though Warden and other supporters said they don’t think that’s the case.

And Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, said she’s heard “grave reservations” from officials in college towns such as Durham, Keene and Plymouth that the change could create additional problems involving students who are 21 and older, and so can drink legally in pubs and bars.

“I believe that right now we have a closing time that works in most instances,” Fuller Clark said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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