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N.H. House votes to oppose privatization of state prisons

The House voted yesterday to oppose any effort to place New Hampshire prisoners in privately run prisons, an option that state officials have explored in recent years as a potential cost-saving measure.

“I don’t think we should be outsourcing incarceration. . . . Think about it: One of the things that our state Constitution requires is that we rehabilitate prisoners,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat. “And yet, there is a perverse incentive for a private operator of a prison to keep those cells filled. That’s how they make money.”

The Democratic-led House voted, 197-136, to pass a bill banning prison privatization. Fourteen Republicans and 183 Democrats voted to kill the bill, and eight Democrats joined 128 Republicans to support it.

The bill states that the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections “shall not enter into a contract with a private or for-profit entity for the custody of state or county inmates.”

That may not exclude the possibility of the state operating a prison that’s been built by a private company – a form of partial privatization endorsed late last year by outgoing governor John Lynch, a Democrat.

The legislation also allows the governor and Executive Council, during a “corrections emergency,” to temporarily place displaced prisoners in a for-profit facility.

The bill, which now goes to the Republican-led Senate, was opposed yesterday by Minority Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett and other House Republicans who said the state should keep its options open.

“There’s no reason to cut off this option for New Hampshire,” said Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican.

A motion to table the bill before the final vote failed, 189-144.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has said she opposes privately run state prisons. She has, however, left open the option of “partnering” with private companies on construction.

State officials consider the existing men’s prison in Concord and women’s prison in Goffstown overcrowded and obsolete. Last year, inmates at the women’s prison
sued the state, arguing
they receive fewer services than do inmates at the men’s prison.

Hassan’s proposed capital budget for the next biennium includes money to build a new women’s prison. And the Executive Council is awaiting an analysis of bids received by the state last year on several models for prison privatization, with a draft report expected by the end of the month.

Voter ID

The House also passed a bill to roll back the law enacted last year that requires voters to present identification at the polls.

The bill would maintain the voter ID law as it went into effect last year, repealing provisions that would, later this year, tighten the list of acceptable IDs and require officials to photograph voters who don’t have an ID.

Supporters say the legislation was crafted as a
compromise that could prove acceptable to Senate Republicans.

“The sensible thing to do is to freeze the current situation where it is,” said Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat.

But Republican Rep. Shawn Jasper of Hudson said the law is a reasonable attempt to detect and discourage voter fraud.

“Voter fraud has never been found in New Hampshire because we don’t look for it,” he said.

The House passed the bill on a 184-122 vote. Eight Republicans joined 176 Democrats to vote for the bill, while the 122 “no” votes all came from Republicans.

A separate bill that would have eliminated the voter ID law entirely was killed on a 276-38 vote, with 34 Democrats and four Republicans on the losing side.

Last call

On a 208-123 vote, the House passed a bill allowing bars to remain open until 2 a.m., an hour later than the current closing time under state law.

Rep. Ruth Heden, a Milford Democrat, said the bill could make the state’s streets less safe in the early morning hours due to increased
drunken driving, and law enforcement groups oppose the bill.

“Do we want to make their jobs more difficult?” Heden asked. “Is that what we’re here to do here today?”

But Rep. Emily Sandblade, a Manchester Republican, said the change would encourage people to patronize local businesses, and could reduce accidents since fewer people would drive to neighboring states that already allow bars to remain open until 2 a.m.

“Many do,” Sandblade said, “evidenced by the traffic coming from Massachusetts after 2 a.m.”

The bill would allow individual towns and cities to adopt an ordinance keeping that community’s closing time at 1 a.m.

Filings, simple assault, guns

The House voted, 220-107, to kill a bill that would have loosened the rules for business filings with the secretary of state’s office. The bill would have required companies to file reports every three years, instead of the annual filings now required.

Supporters said the bill would mean less paperwork for businesses, but opponents said the current system works fine and less-frequent filings would also mean less money for the state’s general fund.

On a 218-111 vote, the House killed a bill that would have reduced the crime of simple assault from a misdemeanor to a violation-level offense in some cases.

The legislation was opposed by domestic-violence groups, but advocates said the current law is too strict in cases that involve physical contact but not physical injury.

The House also voted, 322-9, to reject a bill that would have barred the open carrying of a handgun in a public buildings.

And the House put off a debate on one of the session’s most hotly contested bills, legislation that would
repeal the “stand your ground” self-defense law enacted in 2011.

Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican who plans to speak on the bill, wasn’t available yesterday, so both parties agreed to take up the legislation Wednesday instead.

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

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