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N.H. Senate backs potato but kills bills to decriminalize marijuana, ban prison privatization

The Senate yesterday squelched several bills that passed the House earlier this year, including measures to decriminalize marijuana, prohibit prison privatization and allow funeral homes to offer a form of chemical cremation called alkaline hydrolysis.

But the Republican-led Senate did give its blessing to other bills passed by the Democratic-led House, including legislation establishing the white potato as New Hampshire’s official vegetable.

That bill had passed the House in February on a 276-75 vote, and the Senate approved it yesterday on a voice vote.

“The potato was planted and harvested here in New Hampshire first. It may have gone to the Virginia plantations, but it was eaten. It was not planted or harvested,” said Sen. Russell Prescott, a Kingston Republican.

Gov. Maggie Hassan will sign the bill, which was proposed by fourth-grade students in Derry, where the first potato patch in North America is said to have been planted in 1719.

“Gov. Hassan believes that the civic engagement displayed by Derry’s students in their efforts to pass this legislation reflects the best traditions of New Hampshire, and she looks forward to signing the bill into law,” spokesman Marc Goldberg said in a statement.

Marijuana, prisons

A bill that would reduce the penalty for possession of a quarter-ounce or less of marijuana to a fine of $200 or less passed the House in March on a 214-115 vote.

It was the fourth time in five years the House had passed a marijuana decriminalization bill. And yesterday, for the fourth time in five years, the Senate killed it, on a voice vote.

Sen. Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, said the bill was riddled with technical flaws, including no provision for repeat offenders and a requirement that offenders under 18 be sentenced to a drug awareness program that, it turns out, doesn’t exist.

“Even if this policy did have some merit – I don’t know that it does, but even if it did, this bill is truly problematic,” Soucy said.

Also rejected yesterday, on a 13-11 vote, was a bill that would have prohibited the state from placing New Hampshire prisoners in privately run prisons. The bill passed the House in March on a 197-136 vote.

State officials have explored prison privatization in recent years as a potential cost-saving measure. But nothing appears imminent: Hassan, a Democrat, has said she opposes privately run prisons, and the state recently canceled a bid process because no suitable proposals were submitted.

Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, said the bill would bar the Legislature from even exploring the option. And Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, indicated the legislation was unnecessary.

“There is no current private prison proposal pending,” Bradley said.

But Democrats argued the bill would establish state policy, and said private prisons raise moral questions about the compatibility of a profit motive with efforts to treat prisoners with dignity and rehabilitate them.

“When prisoners become units of production from which profit is derived, there is a perverse incentive to see them as commodities rather than as human beings,” said Sen. David Pierce, an Etna Democrat.

The vote broke largely along party lines, except that Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro voted with Republicans against the bill and Prescott voted with Democrats for it.

Bodies, ethanol

In other action, the Senate killed a House bill that would have allowed funeral homes to offer alkaline hydrolysis, a sort of chemical cremation process for disposing of human remains.

Sen. Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, said some were concerned that the liquid remaining after the process could inadvertently affect groundwater sources. But Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, argued the option is available in eight other states and should be available to New Hampshire families.

The Senate rejected the bill on a 16-8 vote.

The Senate also, on a voice vote, killed a House bill that would have banned corn-derived ethanol as a gasoline additive in New Hampshire.

Under the bill, the ban would have gone into effect after three other New England states adopted similar bans or when an alternative fuel was “readily available” in the state.

“While the legislation is well intentioned, it’s simply impractical,” said Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican.

Annulment records

The Senate did pass a number of House bills yesterday, including legislation that would restrict access to court records in cases where an arrest or conviction has been annulled by a judge.

Under a law enacted last year, court records for an annulled arrest or conviction remain public documents but are marked as annulled. Under the bill approved yesterday, those records would be sealed and the record of the arrest or conviction could be deleted from state police criminal records for a fee of $100 or less.

“The whole point of the annulment statute is to give people who made a poor choice, generally at a young age, and ended up with a record but have since turned their lives around the opportunity to make amends and ultimately clear out that record,” said Sen. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat.

The Senate yesterday approved the bill on a voice vote. A similar version passed the House in March, and the Senate’s version now goes back to the House for consideration.

The bill wouldn’t affect the section of last year’s law that eliminated a statute barring anyone from publicly disclosing someone else’s annulment.

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

Legacy Comments3

Potatoes and singing after freeing long dead slaves. I see the red swim caps and harsher penalties coming back on those released helium balloons. Democrats ran on jobs, jobs, jobs......where are those jobs??

I didn't care about all the other bills. I'm just so glad the potato bill passed. What's that I hear? I think its the whole country laughing at us.

Thank God for the Responsible Republican controlled NH Senate

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