Capital Beat: What’s in store for an historic veto week

Monitor staff
Published: 9/14/2019 10:40:22 PM

Whatever happens during veto override days this week, the occasion will be historic. Even if not much happens at all.

House and Senate lawmakers are set to reconvene over two days, brushing off dust and rolling up sleeves. On the menu are 55 bills vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu – the most in modern gubernatorial history. At the table are 247 Democrats in the House and 14 in the Senate.

That’s not enough on its own to overcome the two-thirds veto override threshold in either chamber, which should tell you a lot about how the week is going to go.

The ground rules are clear. The bills will be addressed in numerical order in the chamber they started in. Each will get a roll call vote. With unprecedented volume, House representatives are spreading their voting day out on Wednesday and Thursday; senators are planning for a marathon on Thursday.

Everything else will come down to the lawmakers, the strength of the House and Senate whips, and in some cases, just how much influence the governor has with his Republican backbenchers.

Here’s a tour of what to expect this week.

Gun bills

After two years in which Democrats kept generally restrained on firearm legislation, this year the pendulum swung back hard.

Back in majorities in the House and Senate – and with a year of indignant political energy at their back following the Parkland mass shooting – Democrats took a stab at passing a set of firearms regulations they argued would be reasonable even to gun owners.

But the fractured national mood around firearms should have suggested otherwise. Pointing to a long New Hampshire tradition of scant firearms laws and low crime rates, Republicans in the minority – and Sununu – pushed back at every bill.

The governor vetoed all firearms bills that arrived at his desk. That included House Bill 109, which would introduce state background checks requirements for commercial firearms sales on top of existing federal checks; HB 514, which would impose a three-day waiting period for firearms purchases; and HB 564, which would ban firearms from school grounds.

He also took down HB 696, which while not explicitly addressing guns, did allow vulnerable adults to seek protection orders, rankling some in the firearms community.

Proponents argued that the bills would make the state safer and dissuade acts of violent impulse, and they said they had written them so as to address common concerns from gun rights advocates. Sununu and other Second Amendment supporters said that the bills were at best unnecessary – at worst, putting gun owners in harm’s way.

Emotions flared. House representatives traded accusations over whose approach would lead to tragedy. And a tired set of partisan debates lived to play on another year.

In short: Don’t expect any speech to move the needle on Wednesday and Thursday.

Voting bills

Firearms aren’t the only area where the partisan fault lines are near unbridgeable. Voting laws have earned a similar status in recent years.

In 2017 and 2018, Republicans cemented two changes to New Hampshire voting law, both of which tightened eligibility at the polls. This year, Democrats made an effort to dismantle those bills, but they also went further, attempting broad changes to transparency and campaign finance.

Standing with his party, Sununu vetoed most of them.

Some of the vetoed bills directly take on the earlier Republican laws, Senate Bill 3 and HB 1264, which imposed tighter documentation requirements at the polls and made voting an act of residency. That would be SB 67 and HB 105 and HB 106, which attempt to shield out-of-state college students and temporary workers from becoming residents if they vote – at least for motor vehicle purposes.

Other Democratic bills attempt to make changes to political fundraising and advocacy. SB 106 would force political groups to register with the secretary of state even if they don’t expressly advocate for candidates. SB 156 would close the “LLC loophole,” which allows individuals to skirt individual contribution limits by using limited liability corporations they control.

Then there are the big Democratic overhauls. In HB 611, Democrats are seeking to pass “no excuses” absentee voting that would allow anyone to vote early with an absentee ballot. And HB 706 would set up an independent advisory commission to help draw up the state’s districts after the 2020 census.

Given how partisan voting laws have become, don’t look for many breakthroughs on overrides.

One potential exception: the independent redistricting commission, which passed both chambers unanimously. Time will tell whether some of those Republican yes votes flip back to stand with Sununu.

Environmental bills

Environmental issues have long been politicized. But in New Hampshire, they provide more areas for common ground than you might think.

Take HB 365. The bill would expand net metering by lifting a cap on the amount of renewable electricity that can be sold at certain rates. And it’s attracted strong bipartisanship in its two-year history – last year, it passed both chambers despite opposition from Sununu and only narrowly failed to meet the veto override threshold.

Another energy bill has a similar history. HB 183 would provide subsidies to biomass plants, a year after a similar bill overcame a gubernatorial veto. The 2018 law is now tied up with a challenge in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; HB 183 is meant to provide a new avenue to deliver the subsidies.

Given the success of their precursors – and the larger numbers of Democrats in both chambers this time around – HB 365 and HB 183 have as good a chance of any bill of surpassing the veto wall.

The rest of the vetoed environmental bills are far less sure.

Labor bills

Also unlikely to make much headway: the labor bills. Democrats put forward a lot of them, particularly in the Senate, largely pushed for by Democratic Majority Leader Dan Feltes. And Sununu, backed by business groups, struck most of them down.

There’s SB 2, which would restructure contributions to the state unemployment fund to go toward workforce development. There’s SB 20, which would reverse recent moves to expand the total number of possible weekly hours for teenagers.

SB 99 would require workers’ compensation to be paid out until the employee found work that paid similarly, which is presently not a requirement, while SB 151 would set up a new administrative review process for employees who say they weren’t paid wages or workers’ comp.

There are a raft of bills in the House and Senate dealing with hiring practices: HB 211 would prohibit employers from asking prior salary history of new applicants and HB 293 would do the same for credit history. SB 100 would introduce “fair chance hiring”; prohibiting employers from asking criminal history until the interview stage.

Labor bills make up another area with storied political history and scant chance of bipartisanship. And despite Democratic arguments that the bills would give backing to the state’s struggling workforce, Sununu countered in veto after veto that the proposed regulations would tie the hands of businesses that are already motivated to treat workers well amid a tight labor market.

And there are of course the bigger fish for Democrats. SB 10, a priority for Senate President Donna Soucy, would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022, and $7.25 for tipped employees. SB 1, once the animating force of the Democratic party, would advance a mandatory paid family and medical leave plan administered by the state – despite Democrats stripping the same language from the budget in June as an attempt at compromise.

The vetoes on those final bills had been signaled for months. The overrides are an equally tall order.

The leftovers

Plenty of the governor’s vetoes fall in no category. Two of them come despite requests from his own departments: In striking down HB 292 and SB 218, Sununu rebuffed the state Insurance Department and the Department of Transportation, respectively.

Others – like a veto over auto repair insurance standards – appear random, but emerge out of twisting journeys. The governor vetoed HB 409, to allow municipalities to increase vehicle registration fees to go toward transportation projects, championed by officials in Concord with an eye to the parking lot renovations.

Swept aside by Sununu’s veto pen were also SB 74, which sought to boost the state’s LCHIP conservation program by increasing registry of deeds fees, and HB 446, which would open up the process to change gender on birth certificates, which the governor quashed despite signing a similar bill for driver’s licenses.

There are vetoed marijuana bills, whose political fates are rarely party-driven. SB 145 would allow “alternative treatment centers” to become for-profit facilities, while SB 88 would eliminate the present requirement of a three-month doctor-patient relationship to obtain a medical marijuana ID card. HB 364 would allow those who carry those cards to grow marijuana at home and evade treatment centers entirely.

And finally, the big ones: HB 1 and HB 2. Those bills, which comprise the state budget and budget-related policy changes, were vetoed at the end of June, after major rifts between Democrats and the governor over business tax rates and spending levels.

Negotiators in legislative leadership and the governor’s office have already missed the deadline to get a budget compromise onto the official calendar by Wednesday. Now, lawmakers will either have to accept a grand deal as a late item, or extend the present three-month funding window to buy more time.

Still, with the budget, as with so many bills this week, the question this week is whether anything changes at all.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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