State House Live: N.H. House passes bill to ban cell phone use while driving
3:42 p.m.: The House just passed a bill that would ban people from using handheld cellular devices while driving. The vote was 192-133, and the bill will now go to the Senate.
New Hampshire already has a law banning texting while driving. This bill would extend that ban to cover talking on a handheld cell phone or using handheld devices for activities such as using the internet or putting information into a navigation system.
It would not prohibit drivers from talking on hands-free devices such as a bluetooth system or from using GPS navigation systems that are programmed before driving begins. Under the bill, no one under the age of 18 can use any cellular communication while driving, even hands-free.
Disobeying the law would be a violation level offense, with a $100 fine for the first violation, a $250 fine the second time and a $500 fine for the third violation within two years.
Opponents of the bill said it would be foolish to enact another law when the distracted driving statutes already on the book, such as the texting ban, aren’t being fully enforced. They also said it should be up to individuals to decide whether they can safely drive and talk on the phone.
“We don’t need broad, overbearing laws that dictate when someone should take that emergency call,” said Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, a Manchester Democrat.
But supporters said the bill was about safety and takes into account opinions of public safety, cell providers and several other groups. Rep. George Sykes, a Lebanon Democrat, said nearly 30 percent of fatal motor vehicle accidents are the result of distracted driving.
“Isn’t it time to address this dangerous problem of distracted driving?” he asked.
Rep. Steve Smith, a Charlestown Republican, called the bill a pro-liberty bill. People should have the right to walk down the street and not be worried they or their children will be hit by a distracted driver, he said.
“I can’t believe that anyone would make the argument that it is so vital that they get that call, right now, this instant, that they can ignore my children,” he said.
If the bill is signed into law, New Hampshire will join 12 other states that ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving.
2:01 p.m.: A bill to decrease the meals tax from 9 to 8 percent was also defeated, 184-148. The cut would’ve reduced revenue from the tax by roughly $24 million. Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat, urged his colleagues to vote against the bill, saying that revenue is crucial for state needs such as infrastructure and health and human services.
The Legislature raised the tax on rooms and meals from 8 to 9 percent in 2009. This bill would’ve only brought the meals tax back down, and Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, said that split would complicate tax preparation for business and tax collection by the state.
An increase in tourism marketing also came alongside that 2009 increase, Almy said, and the restaurant and lodging business has been doing well.
But Rep. Emily Sandblade, a Manchester Republican, said New Hampshire’s meal tax is one of the highest, and New Hampshire businesses near the Massachusetts border stand to lose business to restaurants there.
House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, sent out a statement after the vote saying the meals tax is primarily borne by state residents, not tourists.
“Lowering taxes like the meals tax is something I hope we continue to discuss as ways to help families keep more of their hard earned money in their own pockets,” he said.
12:10 p.m.: The House killed a bill, 173-163, that would’ve taxed certain non-profits under the business enterprise tax.
Under the bill, any non-profit bringing in more than $1.5 million in annual revenue would’ve been subject to the tax. It would’ve hit large non-profit organizations such as hospitals and universities but leave smaller non-profits untouched, said Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican and the prime sponsor. The state’s business enterprise tax is currently set at 75 cents per $1,000 of taxable enterprise value, but the bill would’ve reduced it to 68 cents.
Hess encouraged his colleagues to send it to interim study rather than killing it outright. The state’s business tax base is shrinking, while major organizations such as hospitals are acting like for-profits and avoiding taxes, he said. Many of the state’s largest non-governmental employers are non-profits that are exempt from this tax, he said.
Hess said he did not believe the bill would pass when he introduced the it, but he wanted to start a conversation on the topic.
“The system is currently unfair and it’s flawed and we need to address it,” he said.
But Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, said the bill was problematic and could have unintended consequences on smaller charities. She did not believe the bill was worthy of interim study.
“We cannot leave these organizations hanging in terror while we study this bill – please just kill it,” she said.
It is expected to be a busy day at the State House today.
Several bills will be up for discussion including one that would restrict using cell phones while driving, one that would allow taxing charitable organizations through business enterprise tax, a bill aimed at broadening insurance networks, a bill requiring a warrant to search cell phone data, a bill allowing people to grow their own marijuana if they qualify for medical marijuana, a bill allowing assisted suicide for people with terminal illness and a bill that would establish mental health courts.
Check back for updates as the day unfolds.