As national concern over sex trafficking grows, advocates in New Hampshire are focusing on one problem area: massage parlors.
A number of massage outlets across the Granite State may be fronts for prostitution, victims’ advocates allege, citing websites that advertise sexual services at the businesses.
But an effort to crack down on those massage parlors by adding a licensing requirement hit a snag Tuesday, after a bipartisan mix of senators said the measure was regulatory overkill.
In a 3-2 vote, the Senate Executive Departments and Administration committee voted to recommend killing House Bill 121.
That bill would require massage establishments be licensed and regulated by the state’s licensing office.
Presently, individual massage therapists are required to be licensed by the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, but the establishment as a whole is not. That structure mirrors the situation for other licensed professions, such as hairdressers.
HB 121 would require a specific license for both the business and each individual masseuse.
Advocates for the bill said it would give law enforcement and state officials a new tool in the ongoing battle against sex trafficking and prostitution.
By having the ability to pull the license of an entire establishment found to be offering sex services, the state could more effectively root out illegal and dangerous activity, advocates say.
“By licensing the establishment, it gives the board the ability to go in and inspect,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and the committee chairwoman.
Carson pointed to one website that advertises sex services at massage outlets in New Hampshire.
“I have a list in my area of the number of places,” she said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe there were that many that were advertising.”
At present, absent a raid of the establishment by law enforcement, state licensing officials can only pull the licenses of individual masseuses, which advocates say does not make a strong enough dent in dismantling operations.
“I see this as an attempt to try to get a handle on this issue,” Carson said.
But opponents Tuesday said the bill employed a heavy-handed approach to fix a problem that could be addressed with the tools at hand.
And they argued that the measure would hurt legitimate establishments – especially smaller owner-operated outlets, who would be saddled with a double licensing requirement.
“We’re singling out one kind of professional and saying you need to license,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat. “I’m not sure how this solves the problem, because we were told that this had to do with investigating unlicensed massage workers that are actually sex workers.”
Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Democrat, said the bill effectively created a “police force” within the licensing office to target massage establishments.
“The express interest of this bill is to create a police force that only focuses on places that advertise,” Reagan said. “This is a law enforcement bill; it doesn’t belong here. And I’m offended for all the legitimate operators of massage of massage therapists and I would move (inexpedient to legislate).”
The bill was ultimately recommended to be inexpedient to legislate by Rosenwald; Reagan, and Sen, Kevin Cavanaugh, a Manchester Democrat.
Sen. Shannon Chandley joined Carson in voting against the recommendation to kill the bill, though Chandley, an Amherst Democrat, said that she still had unaddressed concerns about the bill.
She brought up a hypothetical two-person massage parlor that would be strapped with additional costs.
“I’d hate the thought of burdening those folks with the necessity of setting up a license,” Chandley said.
“The intention I’m in full agreement with; I’m still struggling a little bit with the mechanics,” she added.
The committee’s recommendation will appear before the full Senate for a vote in January.