Keno expansion, infrastructure infusion may be lost to conference committee differences

Bill aimed at tracking retail thieves online also mired in wrangling

Keno 603It looks like bills seeking to expand keno at convenience stores, to spend millions fixing bridges and roads and to help curb organized retail crime are all foundering because lawmakers from the NH House and Senate are having trouble coming to an agreement.

House Bill 355, the keno bill, isn’t dead yet, but participants in Tuesday’s committee of conference reached an impasse on Tuesday. Keno is currently allowed in restaurants and bars in the municipalities that vote to approve it, but grocers want to get in on the action, particularly since the law allows winners to cash their tickets at any place that sells lottery tickets.

“We are cashing these kenos out and not getting reimbursement,” said Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Nashua, summing up the grocers’ position. But they don’t want keno screens in convenience stores because “it’s a bad look. The lottery is there, but it is not in your face as it would be if there are screens all over the place.”

So the House came up with a compromise, he said. “You can sell keno tickets, but no screens.”

The Senate version allows screens.

“We fall on the side of the store owners who want a screen,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren. “With lottery going down, gas going up, why are we bothering to interfere with the way they conduct their business?”

Senate conferees suggested agreeing on a limit to the number of screens or square-footage, but Abrami rejected that, saying that the House already compromised by allowing keno to expand in the first place.

The two sides agreed to continue negotiations at noon Thursday.

SB 401

Senate Bill 401 is also in trouble. The Senate bill appropriated $70 million of surplus general fund revenue to fix up municipal roads and bridges. The House added $4 million for a road to boost redevelopment of the Balsams resort in Dixville, long seen as key to the economic revitalization of the North Country. Both sides were in agreement with that spending.

The sticky part was that the House tacked on language from a bill the Senate killed on April 14, HB 1337, which would chop 10 weeks off the current 26 weeks of unemployment benefits provided to recipients when the state’s jobless rate goes below 3 percent, as it is now. The bill would add a week of benefits with each half-percent uptick until the amount returns to the full 26 weeks when it reaches 8 percent.

Rep. Leonard Turcotte, R-Barrington, made the case for the bill, which could mean that some workers could lose 40 percent of their benefits. “The ultimate beneficiary will be the business, which will see their unemployment insurance rates go down. This frees up money in those businesses for growth to hire more employees or to pay higher wages,” he said.

But the Senate was not buying the argument. Some 87 percent of workers do not use their 26 weeks. The average use is 14 weeks. “I really hesitate to start tinkering around the system that works right,” said Sen. Gary Daniels, R-Milford.

To back it up, the senators called in officials from the state Department of Employment Security, who noted that the unemployment rate went down to 2.3 percent in April, the lowest percentage since 1988, and as a result of the fewer claims, the unemployment compensation tax will be lowered in the fourth quarter of this year by 0.5 percent, to about 1.2 percent. The change was expected but not until the first quarter of 2023. That could make New Hampshire’s unemployment tax the lowest in the nation.

Workers already have “one heck of an incentive to go back to work,” said Deputy Commissioner Richard Lavers. “We have the lowest weekly benefit in the region.” On the whole workers, are getting about 31 percent of what they could make, “so individuals can’t afford to remain on the unemployment program for very long.”

Both sides agreed to meet Wednesday at 3 p.m. to try to work out a compromise.

HB 1662

However, there will be no compromise on HB 1662, a House bill that deals with privacy obligations at the state Department of Health and Human Services, to which the Senate attached three amendments. The House said no on the first two – dealing with a $5 million appropriation to aid the fight against homelessness and a bill giving employers the right to pay workers electronically even if they want a paper check.

On Tuesday, they focused on a third amendment, which would require online marketplace facilitators, like Amazon and eBay, to disclose information about large third-party trackers of goods.

Some six states have already passed such legislation, including Georgia and Illinois. It’s to curtail organized crime syndicates that “smash and grab” merchandise from retail stores so they can sell them online. Forcing online retailers to identify possible culprits would hopefully help law enforcement go after them, said Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead

“Isn’t this an issue for store security?” asked Turcotte.

“You are blaming the victim at this point,” said Birdsell.

“I’m blaming the stores that are having the stuff stolen from them,” explained Turcotte.

Some House conferees seemed more sympathetic on the amendment. One said they would be willing to accept it to get the privacy bill passed, but Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said it would be all or nothing.

“Our conclusion is this bill has failed,” said Rep Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, who chaired the conference committee.

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