Capital Beat: N.H. House representatives not showing up for meetings

  • Representatives find their seats before the start of a special session of the NH House to address the state's opioid epidemic at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 4/23/2016 10:52:39 PM

The House has an attendance problem. Some members aren’t showing up to their committee meetings, where all the work is done to actually vet and amend bills.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican. “We just have some members who signed up for a job they are not willing to do.”

Voting on legislation during session day is really just a small piece of a representative’s job. The bulk of the work is in the committee, where members hear public testimony, shape bills and recommend policies.

When representatives don’t show up to those meetings it can create real problems.

Eight of the 21 House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee members have never come to a meeting this year, sign-in sheets show.

And the committee was unable to act on hunting and wildlife bills at two recent meetings because not enough representatives showed up. The committee needs 11 members to form a quorum.

Last week, the committee finally rallied enough representatives to meet, but only after leadership appointed several fill-ins.

“Only five or six of us show up on a regular basis,” said Rep. David Kidder, a Republican who chairs the Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee. “You run for this thing, be here.”

But poor attendance isn’t confined to any one group. Two representatives on the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee haven’t come to a single meeting this year either, according to sign-in sheets.

It’s not clear why the representatives don’t show, and several did not return the Monitor’s call for comment.

Those who did respond cited a variety of reasons for their absence: jobs, health problems and a lack of interest in the committee’s subject area. Sanbornville Rep. Lino Avellani hasn’t shown up to any labor committee meetings this year, sign-up sheets show. He runs a restaurant full-time. “It’s hard to get out because of work,” the first-term representative said.

New Hampshire’s Legislature is volunteer, and the 400 House members are paid $100 a year to serve. It means most need another income stream to make ends meet.

Manchester Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a fifth-term Republican, says he hasn’t made it to any Fish and Game Committee meetings because he got a new job and has health problems.

Similarly, Democrat Armand Forest hasn’t come to the fish and game committee meetings because he is partially paralyzed and has a hard time finding someone to drive him to Concord.

For others, the committee subject matter just isn’t interesting.

Rep. Steve Stepanek, an Amherst Republican, has attended one Health and Human Services Committee meeting this year, according to sign-in sheets. The committee helped vet the bill reauthorizing New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion program.

Stepanek didn’t want to be on the committee, and it wasn’t among his top choices this session.

“I am awful busy with work and other things,” he said. “It’s not a committee I wanted to be on. It’s not a committee I had any real interest in.”

While it’s frustrating to see members to skip out on committee meetings, there’s not much leadership can do about it, Jasper said.

“We have tried calling members,” he said. “I hope that the members who didn’t fully participate in the process realize they don’t have the time to do the job that their constituents elected them to do, and they don’t run again.”

It is hard for curious constituents to get a full picture of their representatives’ committee attendance, because the records are kept in paper copy at the State House and spread across a variety of folders and offices.

House leadership is working to put the committee data in a central database that is electronically accessible.

Until then, Jasper is making subtle jabs.

In the calendar this week, the Speaker printed excerpts from a 1883 House publication describing the make-up of the chamber.

“The House of Representatives is composed of 312 members,” it reads. “We are without returns from 23 members, though each of them was sent five invitations to be reported; but they failed to respond, through either carelessness, indifference, because they couldn’t write, were ashamed to report themselves, don’t-careativeness, general cussedness, or some other reason unknown to the editor.”

It seems absence is a familiar issue for the House.

Who was first?

Energy giant Kinder Morgan suspended its pipeline project last week, and the news touched off claims for credit among New Hampshire politicians.

Several staked out their position as “first” in the state to oppose the controversial natural gas pipeline, which was supposed to cross more than a dozen communities in Southern New Hampshire.

“I was the first statewide elected official to oppose the pipeline moving forward because of the many unanswered questions,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican up for re-election this year.

Shawn O’Connor, running for the state’s first congressional district, chimed in on Twitter: “Was glad to be 1st NH candidate/official to oppose now-suspended Kinder Morgan gas pipeline.”

Many politicians in the state have come out against proposed energy projects, including the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the Northern Pass transmission line.

But their words don’t block a project from moving forward. Elected officials don’t have a direct vote on whether energy projects proceed, that decision is typically in the hands of specific siting boards.

Dog day

Rep. John Burt is really outdoing himself this year for his annual hot dog day. The Goffstown Republican is hoping to orchestrate a State House airplane flyover at the outdoor barbecue on May 11. He’s made inquiries with the Air National Guard, and a friend.

“No tax dollars will be used,” he promises.

Up this week

The Senate will vote Thursday whether to turn a bill that legalizes needle exchanges into a commission. Currently, New Hampshire doesn’t have any needle exchanges, programs that aim to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases among drug users. But some say that amid the state’s drug crisis, needle exchanges should be allowed to help reduce the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV among users. But the bill to do it has been controversial, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is proposing to study it further by making a “commission on hypodermic syringes and needles.”

The Senate is also poised to pass a bill Thursday that would keep the Merrimack County Superior Court in downtown Concord. The Capital Budget committee recommends the Senate approve the bill.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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