N.H. House takes up bills on cell phones in cars, speeding, alcohol ads on billboards
Representatives listen as a prayer is read before business begins on the first day of the legislative session at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, January 6, 2010. (Concord Monitor photo/Katie Barnes)
The House passed bills yesterday to create new penalties for speeding, a credit card program to pay down the state’s unfunded pension liability, a senior citizens bill of rights and a palliative care center, sending each to the governor’s desk.
A bill banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving is also headed to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is likely to sign it. This bill would make the use of a hand-held device, including a GPS, while driving a violation-level offense. The only exception would be for emergency phone calls or if the driver pulls to the side of the road. The bill would not prevent people from talking on or using hands-free or voice-activated devices. If signed into law, the bill would take effect July 1, 2015.
Most of the debate during yesterday’s session focused on bills that the chamber did not approve, including one to allow alcohol advertising on billboards and another to regulate what people can purchase with public assistance cards, known as EBT cards, both of which gathered support in the Senate. A potentially lengthy debate on casino gambling was avoided, as representatives voted by a 20-vote margin not to reconsider a two-casino bill they defeated last week. An attempt to add a home-grow medical marijuana option and decriminalization of possession of small amounts of the drug onto an unrelated bill also was defeated.
The Department of Safety requested the speeding bill, which adds driving faster than 100 miles per hour as a specific offense under the reckless driving law. Under the law, anyone caught driving over 100 mph will be charged with a violation, fined between $500 and $1,000, and have their license revoked for 60 days on the first offense.
Creating a credit card affinity program is the latest idea endorsed by both chambers to help pay down the state’s $4.6 billion unfunded liability in the public employee pension system. The bill would let the state reach out to banks, financial institutions and credit unions about creating a credit card affinity program for the state of New Hampshire, with fees from the card going to the pension system. This bill passed the House with no debate.
House members also passed a bill that requires housing establishments for elderly people to prominently display a senior citizens bill of rights that explains what rights people have and proper complaint procedures. AARP has said it will help educate people about the bill to make sure it is applied consistently.
After a short debate on whether banning alcohol advertisements on billboards suppresses free speech, the House voted 193-164 against a Senate bill to overturn that long-held statewide ban. Substance abuse advocacy groups and beer distributors opposed this bill. Local breweries or wineries can still advertise their businesses on billboards as long as the billboards don’t depict alcohol. Opponents of the ban said it restricts free speech and pointed out that alcohol ads are allowed on television, on the radio and in print.
House members also disagreed with a Senate bill that would have restricted the use of EBT cards that function like debit cards for people on public assistance. The Senate’s bill would have prohibited people from using the cards to buy alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, firearms, adult entertainment or to get tattoos or piercings. The House killed a similar bill restricting fewer purchases earlier this year, and voted to send this bill to interim study, which usually marks a polite death in the second year of a session.
But Rep. Charlie McMahon, a Windham Republican, said he hopes a committee will study the issue further. He said he believes there is some abuse of the cards, but lawmakers need meaningful data to understand the card use before restricting it. During hearings on the subject, opponents expressed concerns about requiring cashiers to be the primary enforcers of the law.
“We can attack those we think are misusing (the cards), but we need substantive data and a holistic policy to address it,” McMahon said.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)