Gay marriage repeal a top issue in New Hampshire

Posted Dec. 25, 2011, at 3:46 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — Repealing New Hampshire’s gay marriage law, legalizing casinos and changing the constitution to bar an income tax are among the hottest topics facing the Legislature heading into 2012, but lawmakers might not vote on these issues until after the Jan. 10 presidential primary.

House Republican Leader D.J. Bettencourt says the House most likely won’t cast its votes until Jan. 11 or Jan 18. Bettencourt says the presidential candidates should have the spotlight until after the primary.

“The presidential candidates have a hard enough time getting their message out. This is the time for them to shine. We want them to get all the attention possible,” said Bettencourt, of Salem.

When the Legislature convenes Jan. 4, it will instead take up a handful of vetoed bills before taking up legislation held over the summer and fall.

Both sides of the gay marriage debate expect the Republican-controlled House to pass the bill that would replace the law legalizing same-sex marriage with civil unions for any unmarried adults, including relatives. The measure would allow anyone to refuse to recognize civil unions.

The Republican-controlled Senate also is expected to support repealing gay marriage, but Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley said he can’t predict if there will be the votes needed to override a veto.

Democratic Gov. John Lynch promises to veto the bill if it reaches him.

Since the same-sex marriage law took effect last year, more than 1,800 gay couples have gotten married in New Hampshire, the state Division of Vital Records shows.

Though advocates of the repeal bill say those marriages would remain legal under the measure, critics aren’t so sure. They argue the bill is so flawed that existing marriages may not be recognized by the courts.

“Civil unions has to be in the bill if we’re going to pass something and marriages that occurred while legal have to be grandfathered,” Bradley said. “My understanding is the bill doesn’t do either of those things. For me, that is a problem, personally.”

The House put off voting on the bill last session to keep the focus on the state budget. Republicans campaigned on promises they would pass legislation resulting in more jobs and GOP leaders did not want other issues to be a distraction.

But despite efforts to tamp down the debate, Republican presidential candidates were put on the spot to give their positions on gay marriage, not just the economy.

And a bipartisan group supporting the gay marriage law is soon launching a television ad defending it and urging lawmakers not to vote to repeal it. The 30-second ad shows people saying New Hampshire believes in freedom for everyone.

Over the years, the House has killed gambling bills. But supporters hope that the latest bill’s promise to use state profits to reduce business taxes will improve its chances of passing.

Lynch promises to also veto the gambling measure, which Bettencourt says has thrown its outcome into limbo.

The House is poised to send the Senate a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar new taxes on income. The state has no tax on personal income but taxes income from interest and dividends.

Supporters argue the proposed amendment would protect New Hampshire’s longstanding opposition to an income tax, but opponents fear it could be interpreted broadly and shut off existing revenue sources for state government. They say that could lead to higher taxes on businesses as one of the few remaining alternatives.

The House sent the Senate a proposed constitutional amendment earlier this year that would require a supermajority for the Legislature to increase taxes or fees.

Senate President Peter Bragdon said neither amendment has as high a priority in the Senate as a constitutional amendment to give lawmakers control over school funding. Once that is done, Bragdon said, the Senate will deal with the tax amendments.

Other issues that will compete for legislative attention in 2012 include:

• Plans to pass new House and Senate districts.

• A fight the Senate put off last year over when utilities can take land by eminent domain. The House passed legislation to slow down a project to carry hydroelectric power from Canada to New England, which has drawn opposition from many in the North Country along the transmission line route. Bragdon opposes allowing the utility to take land for the Northern Pass project.

• Creating a defined contribution plan for newly hired state employees. Sen. Fenton Groen, a Republican from Rochester, is leading the effort in that chamber. Labor unions oppose the change.

The unions successfully blocked legislation this year that would have limited their ability to collect dues — a top priority of Republican House Speaker William O’Brien. Bettencourt said the unions will be tested again in 2012 as the so-called right-to-work bill returns for consideration.

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