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April 05. 2014 11:21PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Gun-rights debate to enter next phase

We haven't heard the end of the legislative debate over one aspect of gun ownership.

As originally proposed, Senate Bill 244 would have required the names of people with court-determined mental illness to be added to the federal list of those prohibited from purchasing guns - a list that licensed dealers use for background checks.

The bill drew immediate criticism from advocates for the mentally ill and disabled, who said the focus should be on whether a person is dangerous, and from some gun rights groups concerned about firearms confiscation. But other gun groups backed SB 244, saying it would provide a path to restore Second Amendment rights to people whose mental illness had been cured.

Under the bill, those prohibited from possessing guns because of mental illness would be able to use an annulment procedure that could lead to their names being removed from the federal prohibition list. Today, the annulment procedure is all that remains of the bill, which will go before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. in Room 202 of the Legislative Office Building (LOB).

Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, sponsored SB 244.

"I'm very troubled by the course this legislation has taken," Watters said Friday. "I find it very difficult to ask the House to support just (the annulment) piece of it."

Gov. Maggie Hassan believes the bill does not address public safety issues.

"Governor Hassan believes that one of our most pressing public safety challenges is the fact that New Hampshire does not provide the current background check system with information about individuals who should not be sold a firearm due to serious mental illness - even though that information is supposed to be included under federal law," said Marc Goldberg, Hassan's communications director. "She has serious concerns about SB 244 as amended, as the bill does not even include a measure to study how to address this issue."

Additionally, Watters said, the state needs an annulment process for mental illness issues outside of the gun issue.

"I am very much committed to finding a way to help those with mental illness and disabilities relieve themselves of that stigma and annul those records," Watters said. "I'm also committed to Second Amendment rights and the need to do (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) reporting in this area."

Former Sen. and current Pro Gun NH President Bob Clegg said he believes all the stakeholders should continue to talk. He noted that those denied their guns because of mental illness have no recourse even after they have been cured and have the backing of their counselors and health care providers.

"It has been put out as a gun bill, but it helps anyone who has a situation - not just gun rights - to annul records," Clegg said. "The court says, 'I'm sorry but there is nothing I can do to help you.' The court is not saying 'No'; the court is saying go talk to the Legislature, so here we are."

Clegg added, "This bill is a way for people to go get help when they need it, and when you come back, you can come back at 100 percent and be who you were before."

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Gas Tax: The decision of whether to increase the gas tax is now in the House's hands.

The Senate approved a 4.2 cent increase last month on a 15-9 vote.

Normally the House would have two committees review the bill, with two public hearings, two committee votes and two House votes. Instead, however, the Public Works and Highways Committee and Ways and Means Committee will have a joint hearing on the bill Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building. The committees will also have a joint work session Wednesday and a joint executive session to decide their recommendation Tuesday, April 15.

Having one public hearing cuts down on the publicity bill opponents can generate through news coverage and advertising. Truckers and groups such as Americans For Prosperity are bound to fire up the opposition.

The bill is on the fast track for a vote this month to give lawmakers as much time as possible between the vote and elections later this year.

The House did vote last year to increase the gas tax by 12 cents, but it was gunned down in the Senate by a large margin. The conventional wisdom is always to deal with taxes in the first year of the two-year term so voters may forget what you did by the next election.

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, said last week she believes the House will approve the bill.

"Everyone is noticing how horrific the roads are this year," she said. "A top priority has to be to maintain our roads. It's good for the state's economy, it's good for businesses and for public safety."

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Billboards: A bill seeking to allow liquor advertising on billboards went through one of the most interesting series of votes this session.

The Senate last month took six votes before finally passing the bill, 13-11. Earlier votes - one seeking to pass the bill, one to kill it and one to table it - deadlocked, 12-12.

After a lunch break, senators again recorded a 12-12 vote to table. Then, on another vote seeking bill passage, Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, switched his vote to show him in favor.

The House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Room 302.

Bill supporters don't want the House to amend the bill in any way because doing so would send it back to the Senate. The state's beer distributors are fighting the bill with everything they have, but some key House members back the proposed legislation.

This is a battle that is not likely to be resolved until the final days of the session.

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Gambling: What is likely to be the final public hearing on casino gambling this session will be held before the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday at 9 a.m. in Rooms 202-204 of the LOB.

Senate Bill 366 passed the Senate on a 15-9 vote last month after sitting on the table for two months while senators waited to see what the House did with House Bill 1633, which was killed, 173-144, last month.

SB 366 would allow two casinos to share 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games, producing an estimated $168 million for the state.

In the Senate, the bill's prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, added the regulatory structure and regulations contained in HB 1633, developed by the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority. And he added $25.2 million in annual revenue sharing for cities and towns that was proposed as an amendment in the House but never came up after the bill was killed

Will the sweeteners be enough to sway the 20 or so votes needed to turn the vote around? Probably not, and he will also be bucking the anti-gambling sentiment of some key House members, including Norelli, who has never supported casino gambling

Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, who chairs Ways and Means, has also been a longtime opponent of expanded gambling and reiterated her position last week.

"We have had so much open debate in the House on this for the last two years," Almy told a reporter. "I'm sick of it."

"I read her statement," D'Allesandro said. "How can I have a fair hearing when the chairman says she is sick of it?"

grayno@unionleader.com



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