CONCORD, N.H. — If you have an open container of marijuana in a vehicle you may be subject to the same penalties as having an open container of alcohol under a bill passed by the Senate on Thursday.

Under Senate Bill 60, anyone caught with an open marijuana container in the passenger area of a vehicle would face a $150 fine and have his or her license suspended for 60 days or a year for a second offense.

“This is an attempt to align the marijuana laws with drinking laws,” said state Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry. “If the marijuana (medication) is in a sealed container and labeled as that, there should be no problem.”

But if it is not sealed, or there is an open container of alcohol or pills “lying around in your car,” she said, “you’re going to have a problem.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown, said while the incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol have dropped, driving under the influence of marijuana has gone up.

“The police came to us and asked us to help keep the roads safe,” Gannon said, noting Massachusetts and Vermont have similar laws with double the penalties.

He said many states with medical marijuana programs passed similar legislation when they realized the problem.

“This will keep our roads as safe as everyone else’s,” Gannon said.

He said the idea is to keep an open container of marijuana as far from the driver as possible, in the glove compartment or in the trunk.

But Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said the bill assumes guilt just for having an open container.

“An unsealed container does not indicate consumption,” he said.

“What we really want is to make sure does not happen is someone operating a vehicle who is impaired.”

At a time when the Senate passed a bill requiring written consent for police to search a vehicle, Kahn said, they are now talking about the assumption of guilt for having a container with a minimum amount of marijuana.

“I just can’t get there,” Kahn said.

The bill passed 21-3 and goes to the House.

Broadband expansion

The Senate voted 24-0 for a bill to establish a matching grant program to help municipalities and communications districts expand broadband coverage around the state.

Although there is no appropriation in the bill, sponsors believe money in the American Rescue Plan recently approved by Congress for public works projects could be used to fund the matching grants.

“Having access to reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to New Hampshire citizens, businesses, health care services and educational institutions,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “The pandemic has shown us very clearly that not all communities in our state have equal access when it comes to the internet. I am confident SB 85 will go a long way to mitigating these disparities.”

But Kahn asked if the bill would preclude cities and towns that have already approved new broadband projects and signed contracts with companies, from accessing the matching grants. The bill prohibits funding for projects already under construction.

Kahn asked Bradley if signing a contract would be viewed as under construction or could those communities still be eligible for matching grants if construction has not begun.

Bradley said he is not sure but would be willing to work on changes to the bill once it reaches the House.

Absentee voting

The Senate voted 24-0 to pass an omnibus voting bill that would allow absentee voters to correct mistakes they make on the outer envelope or affidavit before votes are counted on election day.

Among the actions contained in the bill is a section to allow the pre-processing of absentee ballots, something that was approved for the last election due to the pandemic and people’s fears of contracting the virus by going to the polls.

Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, said that pre-processing was extremely popular with election officials and would allow for correcting mistakes on the affidavit so the person’s vote would count.

Higher tax threshold

Businesses making less than $75,000 in profits would no longer have to pay business profits tax. The current threshold is $50,000 and has not been raised since 1994.

The prime sponsor of Senate Bill 101, Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said the price to the state is small in lost revenue, but will save small businesses a great deal of time and effort.

“The passage of SB 101 is a win for New Hampshire’s small business economy,” Soucy said. “This simple but critical change will relieve our small businesses of an unnecessary financial and administrative burden at a time when many of them are struggling under the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The bill goes to the House for action.

Police training

The Senate adopted one of the recommendations of the LEACT commission to train and educate law enforcement on de-escalation, ethics, implicit bias and cultural diversity.

Senate Bill 114 requires the training which the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council has already put in motion.

“I am extremely proud of today’s passage of SB 114 to codify the critical training recommendations of the LEACT commission,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Becky Whitely, D-Hopkinton. “This work was done in conjunction with Chief Scippa of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council and puts their already-in-motion plans to provide ethics, diversity, and de-escalation training into statute.”

She said she would have preferred the original text of the bill had been included but a section was removed during an earlier session.

She said, “this is an important first step towards making New Hampshire a safer and more just place for all.”

Originally the bill also would have required the departments of Natural and Cultural Resources and Fish and Game to develop protocols for the safe use of public recreation areas without fear of violence from discrimination.

The amended bill passed on a 24-0 vote and goes to the House.

Remote meetings

The use of remote meetings by governmental entities would be studied this year to determine if they should continue under Senate Bill 95. The bill also increases the penalty for violating someone’s privacy.

The study would determine if some form of remote meetings should be continued, said Carson, or whether the end of the pandemic should also end remote meetings.

“We have a limited ability to connect with one another on a personal level,” she said, “so we must carefully study what is gained and what is lost and what needs tweaking.”

Under the bill, remote meetings would be able to continue until July 1, 2022, and a study committee would report its findings by Nov. 1, 2021.

The prime sponsor of the bill, Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Portsmouth, said remote meetings have increased efficiency and participation in cities and towns.

She said she introduced the bill at their request to be able to continue remote meetings and the bill would allow time to study the situation and develop plans for what needs to be done.

The bill passed 24-0 and goes to the House.

Charitable gambling

An omnibus bill dealing with state revenues approved by the Senate includes a study of the state’s charitable gambling activity and its proliferation.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Mancheser, one of the Senate’s biggest proponents of expanded gambling over the years, said a study of charitable gambling is long overdue.

Charitable gambling has proliferated around the state, he said, and it has been years since the legislature looked into the situation.

He said he would like to know if the charities are receiving the percentage of profits set in law.

“There are as many casinos in New Hampshire as there are in Las Vegas,” D’Allesandro said, “and it’s about time we looked into it comprehensively.”

The bill was approved 24-0 and goes to the House.

Held for work

The Senate tabled two bills concerning the state’s retirement system in order to continue discussions.

One bill, Senate Bill 72, would require the state to contribute 15% of the employer’s share to the retirement system for town, city, school, and county employees.

The state for many years contributed 35% of local and county governments’ share of system contributions but reduced the percentage during the recession that began in 2008 and then eliminated it.

“This bill would require the state to make good on its promise to share the burden of employer costs for municipal employees by restoring a modest 15% of the payment responsibility,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua. “I am grateful that my Republican colleagues chose to reverse their original position to ITL this measure representing $53 million in property tax relief and that we will be able to continue this critical conversation.”

The other bill, Senate Bill 119, would allow families to receive the full benefit a member is qualified to receive if he or she dies prior to collecting the benefit instead of the current 50%.

The bill’s prime sponsor Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, said by tabling the bill the conversation can continue.

“The families of our lost police officers, firefighters, and other essential workers should not be left behind due to a paperwork issue,” he said. “SB 119 does not create a new benefit, but rather exposes the Retirement System for making money off of our lost public servants and their families by fixing a simple but critical issue.”

The retirement system estimates the bill would increase what it pays for benefits by $1.38 million beginning in fiscal year 2024.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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