Progress of bills gets harder to track

Last modified: 1/9/2011 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire House Speaker William O'Brien and Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt have pledged a new era of open, transparent government. Recent changes to House rules, Bettencourt said, "ensure that we conduct ourselves with the greatest degree of openness, transparency, fairness and are in accordance with our constitutional rights."

But a change O'Brien implemented regarding public notice for committee work will make it harder for the public, press and lobbyists to track a bill's progress through the House.

After public hearings, legislative committees make their recommendations on bills in an executive session - which in the House is generally not held the same day as a hearing. Until 2006, under Republican leadership, there was no public notice of when committees would discuss particular bills. The House calendar would note the dates and times of public

hearings and then include a notice like this: "Executive session on pending legislation may be held throughout the day, time permitting, from the time the committee is initially convened."

When Democratic House Speaker Terie Norelli took the gavel in 2007, she initiated a new policy: Committee chairmen had to give a date and time in the House calendar for each bill they planned to hold an executive session on.

"When I first instituted this, there were a few committee chairs who thought it was inconvenient to have notice . . . but the truth of the matter is, public notice is not for the convenience of members. It is for the convenience of the public," Norelli said.

Norelli said it would be "a huge step back" if Republicans reverted to the old process. But, O'Brien said, that is exactly what they will do.

"It allows committees to have flexibility to get their job done," O'Brien said. "If they end early, they can still get work done."

O'Brien said he is not concerned about a lack of public notice, since the executive sessions are done publicly. "The public's there. They'll know about it," he said.

Some House members say they are still trying to understand the implications. In the House calendar published Friday, some committee chairs announced details on executive sessions; others did not.

Rep. Janet Wall, a Judiciary committee member from Madbury, said she understands Republican leaders want committees to make progress and not build a backlog of bills. But she also believes it is important that the public knows when bills are being voted on.

"There may be a misunderstanding out there," Wall said. "I'm optimistic and hope we'll publish those bills we expect to (hold an executive session) on in the calendar. Right now, we don't know."

But Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Rowe of Amherst said there is no misunderstanding. "We are returning to the practice we had in the past, a practice that was acceptable under our House rules," Rowe said.

House rules state that executive sessions must be noticed, but do not specify how specific the notice must be.

Lucy Weber, a Walpole Democrat, said she still does not know if committee members will get advance notice of what bills are being discussed, not to mention interested members of the public, lobbyists, the press and department heads who are often called to answer questions during executive sessions. "It does a great disservice to any member of the public who wants to hear debate on a rule that's important to them," Weber said.

The Senate does not give notice regarding when particular bills will come up in executive session. But unlike the House, the Senate does allow bills to be heard and voted on the same day, so individuals who are present for a hearing can stay for an executive session.

Lobbyists who have worked under both policies say the House has been easier to follow since Norelli's change. But they say lobbyists are able to talk to committee members and share information with one another. Amanda Grady of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said her biggest concern is for the public. For example, she said the family of a woman whose husband choked and later killed her regularly attended committee hearings on a bill making assault by strangulation a felony. "If for some reason the body decides not to amend the statute, it would be really important for them to understand why and hear that discussion happen," Grady said.

 Pickup Patriots

Visitors to the State House on Thursday were greeted with a free trash bag, courtesy of the Pickup Patriots. Their logo is a pickup truck filled with garbage bags; their slogan, "hauling out the political trash."

The new group of about a dozen activists from a variety of professional backgrounds is upset about the direction the new Republican Legislature is moving in. In its literature, the group urges lawmakers to do what voters asked for: fix the economy, keep New Hampshire working and "do no harm." Its prescription: "1. Bag your rubbish legislation before the stench embarrasses you and our state. 2. Toss bills that hurt our communities, workers, the environment, property taxpayers, school children, all our families."

Claire Helfman of Hollis handed out trash bags and said she wants to see the Legislature focus on economic issues. "I have 117 (bill requests) that got put in that don't deal with budget or jobs," Helfman said.

The group plans to be a clearinghouse for information about what is happening in the State House.

 New PAC

Two college freshmen from Nashua, Tyler McAfee and Christopher Crawford, have formed the New Hampshire Conservative Future PAC. Their goal is to support young and first-time conservative candidates for municipal and state office, and to keep likeminded incumbents in office.

Crawford said the PAC will be aimed at helping libertarian-leaning candidates who support low taxes, low spending, limited government and civil rights. The PAC will raise and distribute money to candidates and will also use its connections with high school Republican clubs to provide candidates with volunteers.

 New jobs

Mike Biundo will serve as New Hampshire state director for the PAC of presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania. Biundo most recently helped orchestrate 1st District Congressman Frank Guinta's election victory. Santorum returns to New Hampshire this week for an event at the home of former Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne in Manchester, events with the Bedford Republican Committee and the Bedford Rotary, and two radio shows.

• Second District U.S. Rep. Charles Bass has hired Stephanie DuBois as communications director. DuBois, a Goffstown native, formerly served as communications director for Florida Congressman Connie Mack and press secretary for former New Hampshire congressman Jeb Bradley.

• Guinta has hired Mark Powell as communications director. Powell, a former reporter for CNN in Atlanta, has most recently worked on the campaign of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson.

• The only newly elected member of Congress keeping her campaign communications staff is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who brought campaign spokesman Jeff Grappone with her to Washington.

 Presidential maneuvers

The New York Post reports the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is thinking about a second presidential run - and plans to visit New Hampshire next month. Giuliani placed fourth in the 2008 primary, after doing little campaigning in the state.

• Newt Gingrich will visit in March for a "Wild Irish" breakfast in Nashua.

 Short takes

Spotted on the door of state Sens. Andy Sanborn and Jim Forsythe's office: "Coming soon . . . Jim and Andy's Man Cave. Featuring indoor shooting range, pool tables, draft beer, big screen TV, heating swimming pool."

Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein called the sign offensive to New Hampshire women. "This is the State House, not Animal House," he said.

• The progressive website ThinkProgress reports that Guinta, who supports repealing President Obama's health care reforms, will not take the health care portion of his congressional benefits. Though taxpayer-funded health care is essentially the same as employer-based health care for public officials, Democratic leaders have challenged Republicans who oppose an expansion of government's role in health care to forego the benefits.

• Juliana Bergeron, candidate for Republican State Committee Chairwoman, was endorsed by several Republican state senators: Sanborn, Sharon Carson of Londonderry, Bob Odell of Lempster, Tom De Blois of Manchester, Jeanie Forrester of Meredith and Jim Luther of Hollis.

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