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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Vote on death penalty repeal set for Wednesday

State House Bureau

March 08. 2014 11:14PM

The House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on repealing the death penalty for those convicted of capital murder.

Repeal supporters include the religious community, which has consistently pushed for doing away with the law, family members of some murder victims, and several former attorneys general and a judge who previously favored the penalty.

House Bill 1170's prime sponsor, Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, is a longtime advocate for repealing the death-penalty law. He co-founded the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights in 2004.

Cushing's father was shot and killed by an off-duty Hampton police officer in 1988.

"The death penalty does not protect public safety, it does not shield our police officers, it does not meet the needs of many families of murder victims, it is not consistent with the values we hear from our religious leaders, mistakes are made, and it costs the state more money than the alternative: a process that states simply that those who commit first-degree murder will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance for parole," Cushing wrote to fellow lawmakers.

The state has not executed anyone since 1939, but does have one person on death row: Michael Addison, who gunned down Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison's death sentence would not change if HB 1170 became law.

Over the years, lawmakers have voted to repeal the death penalty, including in 2000, when both the House and the Senate passed a bill, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it and the House failed to override the veto.

The most serious recent attempt was in 2009, when the House approved repeal, but the Senate let the bill die after then-Gov. John Lynch said he would veto it.

Other attempts to repeal the state's capital murder statute have failed in either the House or the Senate.

The repeal bill has its opponents, largely the law enforcement community, which continues to maintain the death penalty acts as a deterrent and believes repealing it would put police officers at greater risk and also dishonor the memories of those killed in the line of duty, including Briggs.

The most recent change in the state's capital murder law was to add murder committed during a home invasion. The change passed soon after the Mont Vernon murder of Kimberly Cates and the maiming of her daughter by four teenagers during a "thrill kill" in 2009.

There will be an attempt this year, as well, to add to the list of crimes considered capital murder. Rep. Keith Murphy, R-Bedford, will propose an amendment to include the murder of a child 12 or younger.

But this year, death penalty opponents are buoyed by the prospects for repeal because Gov. Maggie Hassan supports it.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for the first time backed repeal, on a 14-3 vote, with several longtime death penalty supporters - including Chairman Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, and Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton - voting for repeal.

Cushing is optimistic about the bill's chances this week, as are many other supporters.Arnie Alpert of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said that while there does not appear to be a great deal of organized opposition to the bill, his group is not taking anything for granted.

"We're actively communicating with our members, and we'll be there with leaflets," he said. "We're optimistic for passage."

The biggest obstacle to repeal this year is the Senate. Supporters will need backing from more than one or two Republicans because one or two Democrats are expected to oppose the bill.

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Medicaid Expansion: The rush is on to move the New Hampshire Health Protection Program through the House and on to Hassan's desk.

The Granite State's version of Medicaid expansion will be the subject of a public hearing Monday at 9:30 a.m. in Rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building.

After the hearing, a special meeting of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee will be held at 1:30 p.m. in Room 103 of the State House to accept a $2.05 million federal grant for the Insurance Department to continue working on the state's health insurance marketplace, including the continuity of care for those using the exchange.

Despite the organized opposition pressuring Republicans to vote against the bill, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, were able to hang onto five other Republicans when it counted to pass the bill by an 18-5 margin.

It's likely the bill will sail through the House and be on Hassan's desk for signature in less than a month.

The new program is expected to begin July 1.

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Casino Gambling: House Bill 1633, the work of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, is also on the House's calendar this week.

The bill, which would establish a regulatory framework for overseeing commercial gambling, would allow one casino with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which has not embraced casino gambling over the past few years, voted to kill the bill, 13-11. However, that does not mean the bill is dead; instead, it will be decided on the House floor.

Gambling supporters such as Hassan say the state needs its own casino to avoid losing state revenue once facilities open in Massachusetts. Clyde Barrow, director of the Center of Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, said he expects the license for a Greater Boston casino to be issued by the end of June.

Barrow projects millions of dollars will be spent by New Hampshire residents at out-of-state gambling sites. But if New Hampshire builds its own casino, he said, most of that money will eventually return to New Hampshire.

Studies indicate casino gamblers visit the nearest facility, Barrow said Friday.

The vote in the House is expected to be as close as the vote in committee. The Senate has already approved a bill allowing two casinos and is waiting to see what the House does with HB 1633.

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