Clear
40°
Clear
Hi 59° | Lo 34°
Capital Beat

Capital Beat: House bills to reopen the redistricting process might face legal roadblock

Two bills have been filed to redraw districts for state representatives – reopening the contentious House redistricting process that last year ended in a gubernatorial veto, an override vote and a Supreme Court appeal.

There’s at least one problem, though: They might be illegal.

“There is a certainly a strong opinion on the part of most lawyers that we can’t do it,” said Rep. Peter Schmidt, a Dover Democrat and prime sponsor of the more sweeping of the two bills. “I’ve listened to them, and I’m not sure that they’re right or that they’re wrong. But the bottom line for me is that the Constitution is the bottom line on all of this.”

Here’s the issue: When lawmakers drew new House districts after the 2010 census, they angered Manchester, Concord and a number of towns with the new map. For example, Concord’s Ward 5 didn’t get its own representative, instead sharing a three-seat district with the town of Hopkinton.

Such districts, critics said, violated a 2006 amendment to the state Constitution, which stated that towns and wards

that are large enough to have at least one representative should have their own district.

Then-governor John Lynch vetoed the map, which the Republican-led Legislature then passed over his veto. Lawsuits followed, but the Supreme Court last summer ruled that the map was legal. It was used in November’s election, which saw Democrats retake control of the House and gain six seats in the Senate.

Two bills have been filed this year to draw new districts. One, sponsored by Pelham Republican Rep. Charlene Takesian and Hudson Democratic Rep. Mary Ann Knowles, is fairly limited, and mainly splits a 11-seat district for Hudson and Pelham into a seven-seat Hudson district and a four-seat Pelham district.

The other, sponsored by Schmidt and Manchester Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, is broader. It would redraw districts in Belknap, Hillsborough and Merrimack counties, including creating a one-seat district for Concord’s Ward 5. Hopkinton would instead be in a four-seat district including Boscawen, Salisbury and Webster.

“It’s not nearly as sweeping as I would like it to be,” Schmidt said, but “what it does is, it opens the door and it represents a recognition of the fact that the previous Legislature did . . . a spotty job.”

But reopening the redistricting process might not be legal. Twice in the past decade, the state Supreme Court has issued rulings that suggest the Legislature gets one shot a decade to draw new districts, and that’s it.

In 2002, the Supreme Court reluctantly drew new House and Senate districts when the Legislature and then-governor Jeanne Shaheen couldn’t agree on a new map. Two years later, the Legislature made some changes – a move that was then challenged in court.

The Supreme Court upheld the new maps, ruling that since the Legislature didn’t draw the 2002 maps, the 2004 maps were legal.

“Once the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional obligation to reapportion based upon the decennial census figures, it has no constitutional authority to make another apportionment until after the next federal census,” the court ruled.

And in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the town of Canaan – represented by one Bill O’Brien, two years away from becoming the Republican speaker of the House – couldn’t force the Legislature to redraw its districts mid-decade, despite the 2006 constitutional amendment.

Those rulings would indicate that the Legislature can’t redistrict again – at least, not before the 2020 census.

Schmidt said he hopes his bill will be retained so lawmakers can make improvements to it, but “I’m not confident that my bill has any real chance of passing.” And even if it did, he said, “I’m not excluding a court challenge by any means. I think it’s very likely that there would be one.”

But there’s a principle involved, he said.

“At the very least, I think this Legislature should get up on its hind legs and say a wrong was done here,” Schmidt said, adding “I certainly don’t think I, as an officer of the General Court if you will, should sit back and say, ‘Well, I voted against this. I know it’s wrong
. . . but hey, stuff happens.’ And I just think that I’m going to take a stand, along with Rep. Vaillancourt, and we discussed it and we decided it’s something we should do.”

Minimum-wage wrangling

There are no fewer than three bills pending to re-establish the state minimum wage, which the GOP-led Legislature eliminated in 2011 (over Lynch’s veto).

Two are in the House and would give minimum-wage workers a boost from the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. A bill backed by Manchester Democratic Rep. Peter Sullivan and Durham Democratic Rep. Timothy Horrigan would establish a $8 minimum wage, with biennial increases based on inflation and subject to a vote by the Legislature. And a bill introduced by Rep. Timothy Robertson, a Keene Democrat, would set the minimum wage at $9.25.

The third bill is in the Senate. It would establish a state minimum wage of $7.25 – the same as it was before it was eliminated, and the same as the federal minimum wage – and is sponsored by all 11 Democratic senators.

The two House bills will be heard Tuesday by the Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled for the Senate bill.

Busy week ahead

If last week’s occasionally boisterous, five-hour-long hearing on repealing the stand-your-ground law is any indication, there will be no shortage of contentious testimony this session in the House.

There will probably be more this week.

Among many other things: The House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on a right-to-work bill introduced by O’Brien, the former speaker. A similar bill failed to get enough votes in the House to override Lynch’s veto in 2011.

And on Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to repeal the education tax credit program created last year. A big crowd must be expected; the hearing is being held in Representatives Hall, starting at 12:30 p.m.

Not to be left out, gun-rights advocates are planning to rally outside the State House, starting at noon Thursday.

The House will hold a full session Wednesday afternoon; the Senate will meet Thursday morning.

Cooperation against violence

New Hampshire’s all-female congressional delegation is on the same page when it comes to the Violence Against Women Act.

The federal law, first passed in 1994, is up for reauthorization, and bills were introduced in Congress last week to do just that.

First District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster are cosponsors of the House bill, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen are cosponsors of the Senate version.

Revenue squabbling

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s post-election honeymoon might be coming to an end – Republican legislators didn’t exactly line up last week to thank her for appointing a panel of experts and state officials to help estimate revenues for the next two-year state budget.

House and Senate GOP leaders issued lukewarm statements Wednesday, when she created the panel via executive order. And when the committee met for the first time Thursday, Rep. David Hess of Hooksett, the GOP’s deputy House leader, chimed in via a news release.

“I’m not only concerned about the governor’s apparent desire to influence the revenue estimating process traditionally handled by the more than capable Ways and Means Committee, I am also concerned about the makeup of the panel,” Hess said. “Qualifications aside, some of the appointed members have apparent professional interests that may cause concern for conflict or have a history of political ideology that is far from being a ‘consensus’ point of view. It would be preferable if the overall ideology of the panel was more balanced.”

Hassan’s budget director, Gerard Murphy, opened Thursday’s meeting by emphasizing the panel isn’t any sort of power grab.

“We’re not meaning this to be a replacement for any legislative process,” he said. “This is merely a complement to it.”

Spokesperson on tap

Now that the session is under way, Speaker Terie Norelli is close to naming a new House spokesperson.

“We are hoping to hire someone for the House Information Officer in the very near future,” Chief of Staff Ryan Mahoney wrote in an email Thursday. “It is my hope that it will be announced in the next two weeks or so.”

Shannon Bettencourt was the spokeswoman in the speaker’s office for the last two years, but left with the transfer of power after the November election. She’s just taken a job as a legislative aide in the House minority office.

Split decision

New Hampshire’s a little different from most other states: power in the capital is divided.

That’s the word from the Pew Center on the States, which last week released its State of the States 2013 report. Apparently, New Hampshire is one of only four states where control of the legislature is split between Democrats and Republicans. The others are Iowa, Kentucky and New York.

Quote of the Week

“This is Lou D’Allesandro, he was a great football player at UNH.”

That was Vice President Joe Biden, introducing the Manchester Democrat and state senator at a party last weekend in Washington, D.C., according to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin. Biden is thought to be preparing a 2016 run for president, and as every Granite State voter knows, the road to the White House runs through New Hampshire.

(But if you’re keeping track, D’Allesandro endorsed Hillary Clinton, not Biden, ahead of the 2008 primary.)

Mark your calendar

Hassan will present her proposed state budget to a joint legislative convention on Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Day.

Programming note

Careful readers will notice that there’s one name, not two, at the top of this column.

Don’t worry, Annmarie Timmins isn’t going anywhere – she’s just stepping back from day-to-day State House coverage to focus on some larger issues facing the state, such as expanded gambling, mental health services and state prisons.

You can still reach her at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @annmarietimmins.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.