Upcoming in the State House: Tobacco age, family leave, and marijuana legalization

Monitor staff
Published: 1/6/2020 7:17:26 PM
Modified: 1/6/2020 7:16:55 PM

State lawmakers will be dusting off the cobwebs on their voting seats, re-affixing their name tags and re-acquainting themselves with Concord’s restaurants this week.

But just because it’s the first week back in session for New Hampshire’s 424 lawmakers doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. Before senators and representatives can tackle the more than 900 new bills coming their way, they have to deal with the old.

That means 156 bills for the House and 74 for the Senate before the month is up, per legislative rules.

Most of those bills are being voted on by the full House and Senate this week. And for both chambers, it’s a bit of early spring cleaning; the bulk of the bills are set to be struck down.

Here’s what to watch for.

Senators poised to stop police transparency bills

Despite bipartisan support in the House – and passage by voice vote – two bills intended to increase public awareness of police officers’ disciplinary records look set to be pushed aside by the Senate Wednesday.

House Bill 153 would allow members of the public to view any final findings related to police officers that were convicted of sexual assault; fired their weapon and injured or killed a civilian; committed perjury; filed false reports or falsified evidence.

Under the bill, those records would be subject to the right-to-know law, provided that they represented the “final disciplinary action” – in other words, that the officer had exhausted his or her appeals.

A second bill, HB 155, would give prosecutors full access to a police officer’s disciplinary file to determine whether an officer serving as a witness in a case has a history that could affect his or her testimony. That history, known as “exculpatory evidence” would be subject to review and appeal by the officer before it could be released to the parties and the public in court.

Both bills were unanimously recommended for “interim study” last month by the Senate Judiciary, which argued they needed further review. If the full Senate agrees, the bills will be shelved through to the November election.

Down with the Electoral College?

An effort has been afoot for twenty years to address what some see as a gross deficiency in American democracy: The Electoral College. Now, this week, members of the House will get to vote on whether New Hampshire joins in the rebellion.

The bill, House Bill 541, would add New Hampshire to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a scheme in which a critical mass of states might decide to award their Electoral College votes in the presidential election to the popular vote across the country – not the vote by their home state. If states representing at least 270 Electoral College votes participate (more than half of the total 538), then presidential elections could effectively be decided by the popular vote.

But don’t expect any major movement. HB 541 arrives on the House floor with a 19-0 recommendation to push it to interim study, so its life may be short. One potential reason? New Hampshire is a swing state that benefits from the Electoral College, and there’s nothing the Granite State loves more than the national political spotlight.

Minimum wage makes reappearance

Last year, the Senate took the lead on a proposal for a state minimum wage hike to $12, before it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, who called it a burden on employers.

This year, it’s the House’s turn to try. Members of the Senate will vote on House Bill 186, a slightly modified version of Senate President Donna Soucy’s push in 2019 to get to a $12 minimum wage by 2022.

Back to square one for marijuana legalization?

One bill that Gov. Chris Sununu did not have to veto last year – though he vowed to – was House Bill 481. That’s because the sweeping marijuana legalization bill that came out of a year-long study commission and had bipartisan support did not make it to Sununu’s desk.

Instead, the bill left the House on a strong but not overwhelming 200-163 vote and danced around the Senate for a few weeks last spring. Ultimately, senators decided to pass it back to the Judiciary Committee for more work in the summer.

It was a gargantuan proposal: an effort to allow possession, retail, taxation and enforcement of cannabis in the Granite State, all but ensuring the creation of an industry. But the bill’s ambitions may have been its undoing – the retail component attracted criticism from those who said it would spread marijuana use too far.

Now, the legalization bill is moving forward to the Senate floor this week, but under a cloud. Senators voted 4-0 to recommend sending it to interim study last month, including Sen. Harold French, a longtime champion of legalization. The Senate, long the more skeptical of the two chambers on marijuana, will take up that bill Wednesday.

But don’t expect the issue to die entirely. Rep. Renny Cushing, fresh off a successful effort to repeal the state’s death penalty, has submitted a new bill that would pare back ambitions by sticking to legalizing the possession – but not the sale – of marijuana. It will compete against a different effort this year by fellow Democratic Rep. Jerry Knirk to go for the whole ball of wax with retail and taxation.

Other bills up for a floor vote this week

In the House:

House Bill 306, which would prohibit the destruction of sexual assault evidence kits by police officers. It’s been recommended to study while the Department of Justice conducts a review of current practice at New Hampshire police departments.

House Bill 722, the “other” marijuana legalization bill. Set for interim study at the request of prime sponsor Rep. John Hunt, a Rindge Republican.

House Bill 687, establishing “extreme risk protection orders” in New Hampshire, to allow firearms to be removed from people deemed by a court to be a threat to themselves or others. Expect a heavy debate from gun restriction advocates, who argue the bill will allow family members to save each others’ lives, and gun rights supporters, who say it violates constitutional rights of due process and would burden gun owners with court costs.

House Bill 201, which would crackdown on those who pay for or offer to pay for sexual services with victims under 18. The bill, which leaves the Criminal Justice committee with a 16-4 recommendation, would make the crime a Class A felony, rather than Class B.

In the Senate:

Senate Bill 248, which would set New Hampshire’s tobacco age to 21. It’s been made redundant by a change in federal law signed by President Trump last month making 21 the age for tobacco nationwide, but senators will vote on whether to apply that standard to New Hampshire law.

House Bill 130, which would add new licensing requirements for massage establishments to tighten oversight over sex trafficking. It was recommended “inexpedient to legislate” by the Senate Executive Departments and Administration committee, which said it would be too onerous on massage parlor owners.

House Bill 447, which would allow local school boards to determine the start date of the school year. Coming on the heels of the governor’s push to get New Hampshire school start dates to be after Labor Day, this bill looks set to be voted down.

House Bill 397, which would allow those without social security cards to obtain a driver’s license. This one was recommended 4-0 by the Senate Transportation Committee; it has as bright a chance as any to pass.

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