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Capital Beat: Veto week returns to the State House

Monitor staff
Published: 9/12/2020 10:07:48 PM

It’s the most sobering signal that summer is on its way out: Veto Day.

Every mid-September, the New Hampshire Legislature trudges back into session after a months-long break to take up a task that is aggravating for both sides by definition: deciding whether to override the governor’s vetoes.

And this year, Veto Day – which will unfold Wednesday at the Whittemore Center in Durham – promises to be an especially partisan free-for-all. With a presidential election around the corner, party solidarity is likely to be at its highest. Meanwhile, the stress of a global pandemic as well as an especially acrimonious end to the legislative year won’t make things any better. Back in June, Republican lawmakers refused to vote to extend legislative deadlines out of protest for what they said was poor communication by Democrats. In the process, dozens of end-of-year bipartisan bills died on the spot, prompting exasperation and ill-will all around.

In his second year under a Democratically-led House and Senate, Sununu continued to make heavy use of the veto pen, striking down 22 distinct bills, some of which were broad omnibus packages. Nineteen of the 22 bills had bipartisan sponsors or bipartisan support in the House or Senate, Democrats are quick to point out.

To Sununu and Republicans, the vetoes were a necessary defense against a series of left-leaning bills crafted by Democrats with little outreach to the governor. But to Democrats, they’re a disappointing rejection of months-long efforts to craft meaningful legislation.

Here’s some of what the House will take up this Wednesday.

Paid family and medical leave

What Democrats say: For the third year in a row, Democrats brought forward a proposal to create a paid family leave insurance program that would include mandatory participation by employers and a 0.5% premium paid by either the employer or the employee as a percentage of their weekly wages. Democrats argue that the program needs to be mandatory and universal to keep premiums down, and that creating it would give workers necessary protections and attract more young families to the state.

Why Sununu vetoed: Since the mandatory, universal proposal was first proposed by Democrats in 2018, Sununu and Republicans have strongly opposed it, arguing it effectively acts an income tax. By requiring all private sector employers to provide the new family and medical leave insurance, and either pay the premium or deduct it from the employees’ wages, the program places a tax on employees’ incomes, Sununu says. Passing it would create costs for business and could lead to the premiums getting increased down the line if the program turns out to be insufficiently funded, Sununu has argued.

Sununu has proposed a voluntary program that would create a pool of state employees and allow companies in the state to choose to participate; Democrats have rejected it as fiscally unsound.

Minimum wage

What Democrats say:Another long-held priority by Democrats, the proposed minimum wage hike has faced a near-certain demise since its introduction under Sununu. New Hampshire effectively has no state minimum wage; the state level is currently tied with the federal minimum, at $7.25 an hour; it’s been there since 2009. Democrats say that raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour is a necessary safeguard for low-income Granite Staters.

Why Sununu vetoed: Sununu and other opponents say that while $7.25 is not a liveable wage for a family, it is up to companies and the market – not the state – to set a competitive floor for wages. That market dynamic means that in practice many entry-level jobs in New Hampshire start at $10 or 11, not $7.25, Republicans have noted. Passing the minimum wage would hurt businesses and necessitate job cuts in order to pay employees more, Sununu argues.

Online voter registration and “no excuse” absentee ballots

What Democrats say:As the pandemic spread unabated this spring, the Democratic legislative majorities pushed two proposals to overhaul elections. The first was a narrowly-tailored reform that would allow residents to vote absentee due to COVID-19 and allow towns to pre-process absentee ballots earlier. That passed easily.

The second was a far more ambitious plan: bills to allow online voter registration, to automatically register all visitors to the Division of Motor Vehicles unless they opt out, and to allow “no excuses” absentee voting. The latter option would allow everyone to request an absentee ballot in every election, without needing a stated reason.

Democrats say the reforms are necessary to give everyone multiple avenues to vote and encourage those without flexibility or experience to exercise voting rights.

Why Sununu vetoed: The governor did not give a direct reason why he vetoed the no-excuse absentee voting bill, which also included a bevy of other Democratic proposed voting reforms. Instead, he argued in his veto message that the present system works well without that permanent expansion. Sununu also accused Democrats of seeking “to take advantage of a global pandemic to fundamentally and permanently weaken New Hampshire’s electoral system,” and called the bill a “radical, partisan piece of legislation.”

Red flag law

What Democrats say:In the wake of a surge of high-profile mass shootings in recent years, as well as a rise in suicides, some states have enacted “red flag laws.” The idea: to allow relatives and loved ones of a gun owner to quietly go to a court if they’re worried that that owner might be a risk to him or herself or others. House Bill 687 would allow law enforcement to initially confiscate a person’s firearms if a court allowed it – similar to obtaining a search warrant without the knowledge of the party– in a proposed process described as an “extreme risk protective order.”

Democrats said it would provide a tool for families to intervene at a vulnerable moment for their family member and prevent a suicide before it happened.

Why Sununu vetoed: In rejecting the bill, Sununu touted efforts to support and rebuild the state’s mental health system, including with an eye to reducing suicide. But he argued that the focus should be mental health services, not firearms confiscations. He raised concerns that had been shared by gun owners about the perceived lack of due process that allows law enforcement to temporarily confiscate a firearm while a trial is set up.

Gun rights groups have strongly opposed the bill, calling it unconstitutional and arguing it could be used abused.

Protective order for vulnerable adults

What Democrats say:House Bill 1660 would have created a protective order specifically for vulnerable adults – older adults and those with disabilities – to protect themselves against financial crimes as well as emotional or physical abuse. The bill would set up a process similar to the state’s existing domestic violence or stalking protective orders.

A “vulnerable adult,” their guardian, or the Department of Health and Human Services could seek a protective order that could, among other things, freeze bank accounts to stop someone from scamming money before it was too late.

Why Sununu vetoed: This is the second bill in two years attempting to create a vulnerable adults protective order that Sununu has vetoed. The governor, who says he supports the effort, has said the proposed order would create too much confusion for domestic violence victims who are seeking their own protective order. Sununu says he had requested that the proposed new vulnerable adults order not be available to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, in order to prevent them from accidentally signing up for it. Those survivors have their own protective order in law now that carries more protections.

Because lawmakers did not make that change, which was supported by the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Sununu said he vetoed the bill.

Mandatory insurance coverage for abortions

What Democrats say: House Bill 685 was given a lofty title, the “Reproductive Health Parity Act,” and Democrats argued its urgency deserved it. A federal rule by the Trump administration would have required insurance companies that cover abortions through the Affordable Care Act to send separate bills to policyholders for non-abortion-related services and for abortion-related services. Customers would then need to pay two different bills, which Planned Parenthood and Democrats said would weaken abortion coverage.

HB 685 was designed to provide a state bulwark against the rule change, which was invalidated by a federal court in July.

Crucially, HB 685 also required all New Hampshire insurance companies that already offer maternity care to also cover abortion care.

Why Sununu vetoed: Sununu, who has long labeled himself a pro-choice Republican, nonetheless vetoed the bill, arguing that it would jeopardize federal funding by putting New Hampshire afoul of federal law. In his veto message, the governor cited the “Weldon amendment,” a “conscience protection” that prohibits states from requiring that insurers cover abortion care.

“This bill would risk the States federal healthcare funding in the middle of a pandemic, take away the freedom of choice for those employees and employers who object to being forced to partake in or provide abortion services, and expose the State to expensive litigation,” Sununu argued.

Net metering

What Democrats say: House Bill 159 would increase the maximum size for customer power generators to access “net metering” from the current cap of one megawatts to a new upper cap of 5 megawatts. That would allow business and consumers with larger generators and solar fields to sell unused power back into the electric grid – provided they use at least 50% of the power they produce first – incentivizing more people to get solar panels, Democrats argue.

The bill has already been overridden by the state senate – in March, the Senate voted 17-7 to override Sununu’s call, with Republican Sens. Jen Bradley, Harold French and John Reagan joining Democrats. It faces a vote in the House next week.

Why Sununu vetoed: Sununu has consistently opposed bills raising the cap on net metering, arguing that they will raise costs for electricity ratepayers by forcing utilities to buy customer-generated renewable energy rather than natural gas, which he said would create inefficiencies.

“The proponents of this bill claim to have made a compromise, when it fact it would still result in hundreds of millions of dollars in higher electric rates for our citizens,” Sununu wrote in his veto message. “These costs would be felt most by low-income families and seniors in New Hampshire, and that is not acceptable.”

Clean energy advocates have disputed the claims that net metering increases would lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in higher rates, arguing that distributed solar generation can also reduce transmission costs, potentially saving ratepayers money as well.

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