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March 17. 2013 10:17PM

Supporters to ask Legislature for later last call for bars

MANCHESTER - Folks on the late shift could stop for a cocktail on the way home under a plan for a later last call for drinking in New Hampshire.

State law currently fixes a 1 a.m. closing time for establishments with a license to serve alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises.

The state Legislature is being asked to extend the hours until 2 a.m.

Supporters say it makes sense for New Hampshire to align closing time with nearby jurisdictions.

State laws in Massachusetts and Vermont allow bars to remain open until 2 a.m. In Maine bars must close by 1 a.m., but can open at 6 a.m. In Quebec, closing time is 3 a.m.

Backers of extended hours for drinking establishments say it will increase employment, provide more meals tax revenue and give cities and towns a weapon in the war on problem or under-aged drinking.

With the later closing hour, any bar, lounge or restaurant which serves someone who is already drunk or who is under 21 years old would automatically lose the privilege of the later closing hour for three years.

Advocates of later last call suggest it is is a powerful incentive for license holders to be on guard against serving the under-aged or the inebriated.

"Local communities are struggling with these issues, especially in the college communities," said State Rep. Ruth Heyden, D-Milford. "It's the whole issue of looking at alcohol, do we have the will to say we need to deal with this problem."

"New Hampshire is one of the few states in the country where these establishments close at 1 a.m.," said Rep. Emily Sandblade, R-Manchester. "There are 47 states where they stay open until at least 2 a.m. We are losing business along the border areas, especially near Massachusetts."

In Massachusetts and Vermont, local authorities have the power to specify an earlier closing time, either generally or for specific establishments.

The New Hampshire proposal would require local communities to pass an ordinance to opt-out of the later state-wide closing time.

Sandblade said early estimates say businesses could see a 10 percent increase in revenues by staying open the extra hour.

"We surveyed business owners, and half of them said they would be interested in staying open until 2 a.m.," said Sandblade. "There were some who felt their town just shut down too early to make it worthwhile, but we would expect those in the more urban areas like Manchester to want to stay open."

But Heden said that later closing hours could mean people who have already been drinking will continue to drink, a particular concern in college communities and for people working to reduce drunken driving.

"People in my community, in Milford, are really concerned about people driving home under the influence" Heder said. "This is a real issue, at Keene (State) with their loss of a student recently, they've instigated some really good programs,"

In 2007, a Keene student was accidentally shot to death in an incident police blamed on under-aged drinking.

The proposal to allow sale of liquor by-the-drink until 2 a.m. is House Bill 175. It is expected to come to a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Heder said she is looking into whether it would be possible to amend the proposal so that a community would have to accept the later closing hour before it could take effect.

"It would encourage the towns to have a nice conversation about what to do , to weigh the issues and to agree as a community how do we want to approach this," she said.

billsmith@unionleader.com

New Hampshire Union Leader staff reporter Paul Feely contributed to this report.


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