By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — On Wednesday, the House decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, preserve the new education choice program, and help communities with employee retirement costs.
In a busy day, as the House needs to act on bills going to a second committee such as Finance or Ways and Means, the House members also decided to forbid banks from using “social credit” in deciding whether to provide financial services, as well as sending a bill preserving the NHSaves energy efficiency program to the governor, and requiring police to video or audio tape custodial interrogations.
House Bill 1598, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana, was initially approved by the House on a 235-119 vote, after state representatives voted down another proposal, House Bill 1468, 238-114.
While bill supporters said it is about time the state legalized recreational use of marijuana like its neighbors, others said it would instead turn state agencies into drug cartels.
Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, said in the past he has proposed bills to legalize cannabis and to tax it, but this plan would provide more revenue for the state.
“This will provide substance abuse treatment and funding to lower the state education property tax, a concept everyone in the state can get behind,” Conley said. “It is time to get this done.”
But Rep. Susan Homola, R-Hollis, said there is 10 years of data that shows legalizing marijuana increases use among young people, traffic deaths, and mental illness.
“Yet we continue to hear the same tired argument that it is inevitable and it is time to catch up with other train wrecks in other states,” Homola said. “This will legalize a drug that will harm the most vulnerable people in our state and have state agencies act as a drug cartel.”
It is telling that the committee report says it will allow the state to compete with the black market, she said.
But Rep. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, said the bill is constructed to not make the same mistakes other states have made.
“The time for talking is over,” he said, “and for us to come together to take action.”
Marijuana would be sold much like the state sells alcohol under the bill, limiting sales to those over 21 years old.
The Liquor Commission would regulate the growing, processing, and sales of the graded products.
Initially 10 cannabis stores would be located throughout the state.
Unlike earlier proposals, the product would not be taxed, but would generate profits like the sale of liquor does for the state.
The first $25 million of projected profits would be dedicated to substance abuse treatment and prevention and mental health services, and 90 percent of additional revenue would offset the statewide education property tax.
The bill had bipartisan support and now will be reviewed by the House Finance Committee before a final vote. If it passes it will go to the Senate where it faces an uphill fight.
In close votes, the House defeated two attempts to make changes in the recently approved education freedom account program.
The House did agree on House Bill 1627 which would establish an administrator position in the Department of Education to oversee the Education Freedom Account program.
However, the House rejected a bill to hold the program to its budget of $129,000 for this fiscal year, instead of the $8.1 million price tag it now has.
Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, the prime sponsor of House Bill 1684, said the program has been a runaway train that the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office says could mean a $70 million annual obligation for the state.
He said other programs do not have the open ended obligation that this program has.
Luneau said the education department underestimated the cost because it did not foresee the number of students who are not currently in public schools but in private or home school programs taking advantage of the scholarship program.
“The cost is $8 million and going up not because the program is wildly successful or freeing,” Luneau said, “but because it is a blank check for paying for someone’s private school costs.”
Luneau said his bill will stop that runaway train.
But Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, said the bill is one of 17 attacking the new program, noting those attacks are not about the children, but about the money.
“This bill would decimate the program and throw 1,800 kids out of the program that are currently being helped and possibly force parents to pay back funds,” he said. “This is aimed at children, and they are clearly scared by the success of the program.”
The bill was killed on a 182-171 vote.
The House also killed House Bill 1516 on a 181-174 vote. The bill would prevent the use of local property taxes to pay for the Education Freedom Account program.
Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, said people like to have local control over how their local property tax dollars are spent on education, and the freedom accounts do not allow for that as a scholarship organization administers the program.
Porter said if the state wants to offer other options beyond what it does now for scholarship, the money should come from the state and not local property taxes.
The program uses state money now, she said “and this would simply keep it that way.”
Cordelli characterized the bill as one of a thousand cuts seeking to eventually kill the program.
“You heard about local control, well the best form of local control is parental control and that is what this program is all about,” he said. “They are throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.”
The House eventually approved House Bill 1417, which would pay 7.5 percent of the cost of public employee retirement costs for teachers, police and firefighters.
The state would begin contributing as it once did beginning in fiscal year 2024 at a cost of $28 million.
The state at one time paid 40 percent of the state retirement system premium for all municipal and county employees, but stepped that down over time until 2012 when it stopped paying its share of costs during the great recession.
The bill is one of many attempts to have the state return to paying some of the retirement costs.
Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Nashua, said the bill would help cities and towns and provide some much needed property tax relief after the local costs jumped when the state’s share was eliminated.
But opponents of the bill said it should be a municipality’s responsibility to pay their employees’ retirement costs, noting that some communities are generous which drives up the costs for other communities who are less so.
Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, said municipalities have been begging for state help for 10 years, but one Legislature cannot be bound by a previous one.
“It’s their decisions, their hiring, and their pay,” she said, “that determine how much they pay (for retirement).”
McGuire chairs the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee which recommended the bill be killed.
The first vote on the bill was 173-172 to kill the bill, but was reconsidered on a 180-171 vote.
Then there were a series of votes before lawmakers finally voted 182-169 to approve the bill, which now goes to the finance committee for review before a final vote of the House
The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The House approved House Bill 1469 on a 187-168 vote. The bill prohibits banks and other financial institutions from judging a person’s credit worthiness on social media postings or such things as gun ownership.
Rep. Max Abramson, R-Seabrook, said some financial institutions are engaging in indiscrimination for what someone says, or freedom of speech.
Rep. Jeffrey Greeson, R-Wentworth, said banks and other financial institutions are using non-financial criteria to grant access to your money or to determine credit worthiness.
It began in China and is now in Canada, noting a bank denied truckers in the COVID-19 mandates protest access to their money.
They control your access to fit their ideology, he said.
But opponents said there is no evidence banks in this country are using social credit scores and the bill would just add to the considerable regulations banks and financial institutions have to meet now.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
The House approved
House Bill 1388, which makes it a misdemeanor to transmit an intimate image without the consent of the person, if you send an image of yourself to another person without his or her consent.
House Bill 1327 allows a person with diabetes to have a service animal with them.
House Bill 1608 allows a person to decide if he or she wants their vaccination information in the state’s vaccination registry. Currently a person can opt out of including the information, but this bill would require someone to opt in.
House Bill 1049 establishes a committee to study landfill siting criteria and methods for reducing pressure on landfill capacity, and also House Bill 1420 prohibiting the issuance of new landfill permits until the state’s solid waste plan is updated. The bill makes exemptions for existing applications.
The House also agreed to Senate changes in House Bill 549, which restores the NHSaves energy efficiency program that a Public Utilities Commission order would have all but eliminated.
The bill goes to the governor, who has said he will sign it.
The House sent back for more study — a polite death in the second year of a term because the incoming legislature does not have to act on it — a bottle bill and effort to prohibit COVID-19 mandates by state and local governments.
With little fanfare the House killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, the federal rate, and the lowest in New England and most other states.
And the House effectively killed House Bill 1484, which would have required a forensic audit of the 2020 election. The bill was tabled, but has to go to a second committee because of the audit’s costs. If the House does not take it off the table and act on it by Feb. 24, it will take a two-thirds majority to take it off the table.
The House meets again at 9:30 a.m. to hear Gov. Chris Sununu’s State of the State speech at 10 a.m. and then continue work on the more than 200 bills on this week’s calendar.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.