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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Can the New Hampshire House move any slower?

They’ve voted to repeal the death penalty, raise the state’s minimum wage and legalize marijuana. They’ve shot down a casino and attempts to expand gun background checks. They’ve debated the proper use of welfare benefits and fetal homicide laws.

Judging from the headlines, New Hampshire’s House of Representatives must be pretty productive, right?

Not so fast. The House must send all of its bills to the Senate by Thursday, and lawmakers still have more than 80 to go. Given the pace they’ve been operating at, Speaker Terie Norelli has scheduled three session days for next week to tackle them all.

What’s causing this race against the clock? In part, it’s due to an excessive use of roll call votes, numerous procedural delays, and long-winded debates on bills that are doomed to fail. In other words, all the things that aren’t interesting enough to make headlines in the newspaper.

“People are playing a lot of games, and it is more than we’ve seen in the past,” said Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat. “There’s just been several things that have just gone on endlessly. Some of it is legitimate, where people have genuine questions and that’s perfectly acceptable and understandable, but when you get into the procedural maneuvering, challenging rulings of the chair, just all of the minutia of parliamentary games . . .”

Some examples: On Thursday, debate on a paint recycling program lasted for two hours, with lawmakers calling for roll call votes four different times on the same bill.

The week before, lawmakers spent an hour and a half debating a law about when to turn on car headlights. Multiple times this session, members have initiated lengthy debates opposing unanimous committee recommendations – in other words, efforts they know don’t have a chance of succeeding.

On the one hand, this is the beauty of New Hampshire’s democracy. Every bill gets a public hearing. Every bill gets a debate on the floor if a lawmaker wants it. Every lawmaker can, for the most part, speak for as long as he or she wants.

“That’s just the nature of the beast,” said Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican.

But at what point do these delays become too much?

Let’s go back to Thursday’s debate on the paint recycling bill. The bill established a paint stewardship program meant to give people a safe and easy way to get rid of unused paint cans. After holding a public hearing on the bill, the Environment and Agriculture Committee added an amendment that would allow businesses in the recycling program to add an additional fee, up to $1.60, on the price of those paint cans.

Republicans said the committee broke House rules by adding a new fee on the bill without holding another public hearing. Cue the two-hour debate – and much more.

First lawmakers stood up to debate the bill.

Then the House voted down a motion to table the bill.

Then Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, tried to suspend the rules to send the bill back to committee.

A Democratic representative stepped in to call for a vote on the amendment, which needed its own vote, which was a roll call.

Then, the House voted to accept the amendment – also a roll call.

And finally, the House voted to pass the entire bill. That was, of course, a roll call vote.

In addition to adding five to 10 minutes onto every vote while lawmakers meander to their seats, roll calls cost money. Each roll call vote is printed out and distributed to the press room and other places around the State House, and each roll call is also printed in the House’s end-of-the-year permanent journal. House clerk Karen Wadsworth said she now uses the thinnest paper and the smallest font she can in the permanent journals, and they still take up 1,500 pages by the end of each year. Every House member and individual who wants a print out of the House journal gets one.

“My concern is how many pages we are taking up with just these lists and lists and lists,” Wadsworth said.

There are legitimate reasons for calling a roll call: One, it’s a way to get lawmakers on record on major issues, which is especially important in an election year. Second, it’s a good way for party leaders to ensure their members stay in line.

But sometimes they’re just used to frustrate or slow down the process. For example, last week former House speaker William O’Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, asked for a roll call vote on a motion to adjourn for the day.

So, going into this week, what can the party leadership do to keep their members in line and the process moving quickly? Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, said Democrats are encouraging committee chairs to sit near the front and recommending that people quietly ask them questions about bills before asking on the House floor. Other members can also end lengthy debates by calling for votes.

On the Republican side, Chandler said he can’t control members who want to speak on bills and doesn’t believe in limiting debate. But he hopes people will make their arguments concisely and consider what previous speakers have said.

“Eight to nine people speaking on a subject, in my opinion, doesn’t do the subject matter any good if you’re trying to pass or kill something,” Chandler said. “It doesn’t help; it might even hurt sometimes.”

Will lawmakers heed this message and choose their words wisely next week? If not, it’s going to be a very long three days.

Ayotte to Ukraine

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, is in Ukraine this weekend with a congressional delegation to meet with government officials, military personnel and others. She’ll also be in Israel for a similar mission.

“The challenges facing Ukraine and Israel have far-reaching consequences for our national security and peace in the world, and hearing directly from leaders there will inform my work in the Senate,” she said in a statement. Ayotte is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Ayotte has been a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Voters in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula passed a referendum last week to become part of Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t backed down on his desire to control the area. The United States has issued economic and travel sanctions against 20 Russians, including Putin’s chief of staff.

Early last week, when the U.S. hadn’t imposed sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, Ayotte told the Monitor she wanted President Obama to do more. During the National Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua last weekend she said Putin was playing hardball while Obama was playing T-ball.

“We need to hit his inner circle there financially,” she said.

In regards to how the United States should be helping Ukraine, Ayotte said passing an economic aid passage was a crucial step.

She doesn’t want to see the United States enter into an armed conflict there, but believes the country needs to take strong actions.

“The concern is if (Putin) thinks there are no consequences for the invasion of Crimea, we don’t know what the next step will be,” she said.

Ayotte will appear on CBS’s Face the Nation live from Ukraine this morning at 10:30.

What to watch

∎ Both the House and Senate calendars are jam-packed this week, as each chamber need to send all bills to the other by Thursday. The House will convene Tuesday at 10 a.m. and meet again on Wednesday and Thursday. The Senate will meet Thursday at 10 a.m.

∎ Bills of note in the House include the marijuana legalization bill, which the House Ways and Means Committee recommends killing; the Senate’s plan to expand access to health insurance through federal Medicaid dollars; and an increase in unemployment benefits.

∎ The Senate will take a final vote on a gas tax increase and may amend a two-casino gambling bill that has been on the table.

∎ Vice President Joe Biden will visit Nashua on Tuesday for an event on workforce development. The White House hasn’t released details on the event time and location.

∎ Now more than a week into his listening tour, Scott Brown should make public his decision about whether to enter the U.S. Senate race against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen soon.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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