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House votes to raise N.H. cigarette tax, require safety seats for 6-year-olds

The House voted yesterday to raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes by 20 cents – 10 cents less than the hike sought by Gov. Maggie Hassan in her state budget.

Raising the tobacco tax will help discourage youth smoking, but “the primary intent of this bill is revenue,” said Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, “revenue we need to start to repair the damage done last term to our government services, to individuals, families, towns, school districts, businesses and our economy and society.”

The bill passed the Democratic-led House on a 193-167 vote. Ten Republicans and 183 Democrats voted for the tax increase, while 17 Democrats and 150 Republicans voted against it.

If approved by the Republican-led Senate, the legislation would raise New Hampshire’s tax on a pack of cigarettes from $1.68 to $1.88. That would still be the lowest per-pack tax in New England, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group.

The state’s tobacco tax was raised four times under former governor John Lynch, from 52 cents a pack in 2005 to $1.78 a pack in 2009. The tax was then cut 10 cents by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011, though that cut is scheduled to disappear later this year because revenues have dropped.

Hassan, a Democrat, in the proposed state budget she unveiled last month, asked the Legislature for a 30-cent increase in the tobacco tax. But the bill that came to the House floor yesterday proposed only a 20-cent hike.

(Both figures include reversing the 10-cent cut made two years ago. The House is still working on its version of the state budget.)

In addition, the tax on non-cigarette tobacco products would increase from 48 percent to 53.7 percent.

Rep. Patrick Abrami, a Stratham Republican, said the tobacco tax is regressive, and raising it could hurt poor residents and retailers who rely on cross-border customers.

“This tax been demagogued for the last two years – for political gain, I would say,” Abrami said. “The reality is that state legislatures are addicted to the cigarette tax. . . . Let’s help the poor, elderly and our merchants by not increasing this tax.”

But Rep. Richard Ames, a Jaffrey Democrat, said even with the increase, New Hampshire’s per-pack tax would still be lower than in surrounding states, and the difference is even greater when those states’ sales taxes are factored in. (New Hampshire has no general sales tax.)

Child seats, smart meters

In other action yesterday, the House passed a bill requiring 6-year-olds to sit in child-safety seats while riding in cars. State law currently requires children 5 and under to use safety seats.

The new requirement wouldn’t apply to children 56 inches or taller, an increase from the current threshold of 55 inches.

The bill was endorsed, 12-3, by the House Transportation Committee, and the full House passed it on a 224-137 vote.

Rep. Jim Webb, a Derry Republican, offered an amendment that would have also required children 6 and under to ride in the rear seat of a vehicle, but it was rejected by the House, 290-63.

Also, on a 232-124 vote, the House killed a bill that would have required the consent of a property owner before a utility company could install a so-called “smart meter,” a device that allows for remote meter-reading and outage reporting.

The Legislature last year passed, and then-Gov. John Lynch signed, a bill requiring owner permission before a different type of meter, a so-called “smart meter gateway device,” could be installed.

Credit reports, abortion

The House passed, on a 213-144 vote, a bill barring employers from using credit reports in hiring decisions.

The legislation makes it an “unlawful discriminatory practice” for any employer to request or use a job applicant’s credit history, unless required by law or for a “bona fide purpose . . . that is substantially related to the employee’s current or potential job.”

But the House avoided a debate on abortion by voting, 239-111, to table a resolution expressing support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down state bans on abortion.

The resolution, introduced by Concord Democratic Rep. Candace Bouchard on the ruling’s 40th anniversary, deadlocked the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, which sent it to the House floor without a recommendation.

And on a voice vote, the House passed a bill related to a multi-state legal settlement with tobacco companies. The legislation passed the Senate last week, and is being fast-tracked to meet an upcoming deadline in the case.

Citizens United, amendment

On a 189-139 vote, the House passed a concurrent resolution encouraging New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “establishing that human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights.”

The resolution is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to independently spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

The final vote yesterday came after an hour of late-afternoon debate and several procedural attempts to block the resolution: two motions to table, a motion to indefinitely postpone and a motion to send the legislation back to committee. All four motions failed.

But the House did table a bill sponsored by three representatives that would have recognized an “original” 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Historians believe the proposed amendment, which dates to the early 19th century and bars U.S. citizens from accepting “any title of nobility or honor” or foreign honors, was not properly ratified by the states. But there is a theory that the amendment was, in fact, ratified and later suppressed.

Rep. Tim Smith, a Manchester Democrat, encouraged representatives to allow a debate on the bill, “so we can have a little fun” and discuss what he described as a “silly conspiracy theory.”

But the House voted, 275-64, to table the bill, “and no fun is to be had,” said Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat.

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

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