CONCORD, NH — The House met in a historic session Thursday for the first time in three months, but the partisan divide characterizing this session prevailed and most bills on the calendar died without a vote.
With Republican opposition, the House failed to adopt new deadlines by the needed two-thirds majority, killing all the remaining House bills and any Senate approved bills.
The House did manage to concur on Senate changes to four House bills, sending them to Gov. Chris Sununu, and a resolution with updated revenue estimates for the biennium, but little else.
Without the rule change, bills to establish an independent redistricting commission, expanding the child advocates oversight, the state’s 10-year highway improvement plan, expanding net metering, regulating drones and encouraging affordable housing all died.
Requests to introduce two bills concerning racial profiling and discrimination, a resolution rescinding a number of Sununu’s executive orders that restrict various activities and set limits on meetings, and a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to meet remotely all failed.
The only bill making it over the two-thirds majority hurdle would allow restaurants and bars to sell their keg beer by the growler before it spoils.
The bill will come before the House when it meets again, likely at the end of the month.
Several lawmakers alluded to the growler proposal including Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, who pushed to approve expanding authority for the child advocate’s office saying, “If you want to make New Hampshire safe for growlers, let me implore you to add protections for New Hampshire’s children.”
Democrats said Republicans only wanted to obstruct the process and prevent the House from moving forward.
“The display of political opportunism exhibited by House Republicans today shows that they did not come to the session interested in doing their job for the people of New Hampshire,” said House Majority Leader Douglas Ley, D-Jaffrey, “but instead came only to obstruct the very detailed and safe process that both House staff and UNH staff have devoted months to planning and executing.”
But House Minority Leader Dick Hinch said his party could not support the rule change after they were left out of the planning process and setting priorities for the remainder of the session.
“My Republican colleagues and I are genuinely eager to complete the work we were elected to do,” he said. “It’s time for the Speaker to fulfill his duty of representing the entire House of Representatives, not just take orders from his partisan leadership team.”
But House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff has called the allegations of poor communications with the minority party leadership “a preposterous and an outright lie.”
The historic session was held in Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire in order to meet social distancing guidelines instead of Representatives Hall, with each member given a face mask and plastic face shield.
The masks were a contentious issue for some members who refused to wear them and resulted in an unsuccessful challenge to House Speaker Shurtleff’s ruling they had to be worn on the floor. Separate sections dubbed “the freedom seats” were set aside for people who refused to wear them, or could not for medical reasons.
The partisan divide was apparent from the beginning, when the Democratic majority sought to set new deadlines after the existing deadlines passed while the Legislature was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans opposed the rule change saying the new deadlines do not allow enough time to do the work needed to complete the session. The proposed rules would have had the House act on all Senate bills by June 25 and final action on all bills June 30.
“This change will not allow us to do the people’s business,” said Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, noting the schedule also does not allow for negotiations with the Senate on bill changes.
“That is ridiculous,” she said. “We are abdicating our duty to do the people’s business.”
But others said these are extraordinary times and the legislature needs to continue to do its work.
“This is a difficult schedule, but these are difficult times,” said Weber. “It is better to say ‘Because it is difficult, we will do as much as we can as well as we can to work for the people of New Hampshire.’”
Changing the rules failed to reach the needed two-thirds majority on a 199-143 vote.
After that, the disagreements continued.
Republicans tried to block likely increases in business tax rates because revenues for those levies will be 6 percent or more below the budget plan due to the economic shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic. The trigger was included in the budget compromise passed last year.
Republicans said the rate freeze is necessary to help businesses struggling to survive the coronavirus pandemic and to provide some certainty as they plan for the future.
Democrats said the change in the budget law to block the rate increases is premature and does not have to be done until next year when better, more reliable information would be available.
The trigger would be activated after the state comprehensive financial audit is released in December.
The budget law requires business enterprise and profits tax rates to increase to their 2018 levels if revenues are 6 percent or more below the budget plan, increasing the business enterprise tax rate from .6 to .675 percent, and the business profits tax rate from 7.7 to 7.9 percent Jan. 1.
Ley said lawmakers need to make an informed decision based on data that will not be available until December, not create tax policy on the back of a napkin.
Instead of trying to develop good tax policy, Ley said, Republicans are presenting “what some might characterize as a political opportunistic proposal.”
Hinch argued many of the state’s businesses that are struggling need the change to stay alive.
“Democrats have stated they’d rather ask businesses to wait and see if the legislature does something in seven months. That doesn’t make sense,” Hinch said. “The Jan. 1 rate hike is affecting their decision making now, this year. Seven months of uncertainty is not what we were elected to deliver, but that’s what Democrats voted for today.”
The rate changes failed to reach the needed two-thirds majority on a 154-174 vote.
10-year Highway Plan
Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, Public Works and Highways Committee chair, said he has been in the House since 1992 and every two years a highway improvement plan has passed.
“The 10-year Highway Plan, which was blocked from consideration by House Republicans today, is critical to the long-term planning of New Hampshire’s roadways and transportation infrastructure,” he said. “This plan contains items that benefit communities across New Hampshire, including funding to remove the tollbooth in Merrimack.”
He said not approving the House version will let the Senate determine the priorities and the House will not have a say.
The attempt failed to meet the two-thirds threshold on a 211-120 vote.
The House also voted down a resolution that would have overturned a number of Sununu’s executive orders that restrict various activities and set limits on meetings.
The resolution sponsored by Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, would have ended restrictions on residents, and prohibited any extension of the state of emergency order.
He said the resolution would reestablish the legislature as the primary governmental policy decider and reclaim its statutory authority to decide spending and revenue issues.
The Republican leadership opposed the resolution saying the governor would be making several announcements that afternoon that would please those sponsors.
The attempt to suspend the rules failed on a 280-57 vote.
At the beginning to the session, University of New Hampshire president James Dean, welcomed the lawmakers to the Durham campus noting many of them come to hockey games at the arena.
But he noted health laws forbid throwing a fish on the ice for the first bill that passes, which would have been well into the session.
He also said, “The penalty box is not available today.”
At the end of the day, Democrats had to wish it were.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org