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June 28. 2014 7:11PM

NH residents to see other laws soon in addition to gasoline tax

The gas tax isn't the only major piece of legislation passed in Concord this past session. A new law that could arguably have the biggest effect on New Hampshire residents - after the gas tax - is a ban on hand-held use of cellphones while driving, scheduled to take effect July 1, 2015.

Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to sign the bill making such illegal use punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for every subsequent offense over a 24-hour time frame. Drivers will still be allowed to talk on cellphones while driving using hands-free devices and two-way radios.

The ban applies if a driver is only stopped temporarily - such as at an intersection - but not if the driver has pulled over and stopped off the road. The bill allows answering the phone, but not while holding it to the ear; it prohibits typing text messages or emails while driving. The law prohibits drivers from programming GPS devices while driving and bans cellphone use by minors operating a vehicle. Emergency calls from drivers of all ages are allowed.

While the bill has yet to reach Hassan's desk, spokesman William Hinkle said she will probably sign it.The bill calls for the state to begin an advertising campaign prior to the law's enactment to inform drivers of the ban. The effort will include highway message boards, brochures and radio public service announcements.

Several other major bills are scheduled to become law over the coming weeks and months. Here's a recap:

Joshua's law

Becky Ranes, the mother of 9-year-old Joshua Savyon, who was killed by his father, Muni Savyon, at a Manchester visitation center last August, worked to persuade lawmakers the state should have a separate crime of domestic violence. The result was Senate Bill 318, known as Joshua's Law.

The law, signed by Hassan, bundles existing laws under one section of the criminal code. Before the passage of SB 318, someone who assaulted or threatened a domestic partner or family member was often charged under one of 17 state statutes, including simple assault, criminal threatening, kidnapping or stalking. The new law enables law enforcement to charge a suspect with domestic violence. Supporters said the change will allow law enforcement to collect domestic-violence statistics, leading to better monitoring and earlier intervention.

The new law takes effect Jan. 1.

Abortion sites

A law allowing a 25-foot buffer zone around buildings where abortions are performed is scheduled to take effect in mid-July, though exactly what effect a ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court will have on the law has yet to be determined. (See State House Dome, Page B9)

Last Thursday, the court ruled that a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion sites was unconstitutional because it overly restricts people's rights to free speech and assembly.

Supporters of New Hampshire's law say it addresses the issues raised by the court by allowing for flexible buffer zones, tailored to the layout of each site.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said last week it's too early to know the effect of the court's ruling on the law.

Medicaid expansion

New Hampshire residents eligible for Medicaid under new rules approved by the state Legislature can begin applying on July 1 for health insurance coverage that begins Aug. 15.

New Hampshire residents between ages 19 and 65 with a household income of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for new health care coverage under New Hampshire's Medicaid expansion plan. Qualified working adults with access to health insurance through their employer will be covered through their employer-sponsored insurance, with the state paying the employee's premiums and other costs of coverage. Further details are available at www.nheasy.nh.gov; by calling the Medicaid Service Center at 888-901-4999; by visiting a DHHS district office; or through www.healthcare.gov.

Hospital tax

A four-year agreement with all but one of the state's hospitals was approved by lawmakers on a bipartisan vote, avoiding a potential $375 million budget shortfall this biennium.

Two superior courts had ruled the state's tax on hospitals - the Medicaid Enhancement Tax - was unconstitutional because it taxed only hospitals for services that were also provided by private laboratories, private physician practices, ambulatory surgical centers and other health care providers. Over the next five years, according to the settlement, the amount of state and federal money dedicated to helping hospitals recoup their uncompensated care will double. The deal ends litigation on both the state and federal levels brought by the hospitals over the MET and state Medicaid reimbursement rates. The bill, SB 369, has yet to be signed by Hassan.

Heating oil

Also awaiting Hassan's signature is a bill to limit when heating oil companies can advertise prepaid contracts and make failure to deliver heating fuel a violation under the state Consumer Protection Act. House Bill 1282 gained support last winter when Fred Fuller Oil and Propane Co. failed to meet scheduled deliveries of heating oil. The bill limits to between May 1 and Oct. 31 the period when dealers can advertise and solicit customers for prebuy contracts. Failure to deliver heating oil under a prepaid contract will be considered a class B misdemeanor, which could be upgraded to a class A misdemeanor for repeated or gross violations.


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