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Our Turn: Hard choices for your state lawmakers

Published: 6/27/2020 6:45:12 AM

If you are reading this, you probably are aware that the state Legislature has been in some major upheaval trying to play a role in helping our constituents throughout the state deal with the issues in all of our lives cast by this pandemic.

For the first time since the Civil War, our huge 400-member House met outside our “sardine can” chambers in the State House, at the Whittemore Arena at UNH, in order to provide non-contagion distancing between members.

When the House last met in March, there appeared to be agreement by both parties that rules would be amended at a future meeting once the impacts of the pandemic were known. However, when the House met at UNH on June 11, the Republican leaders claimed that although they are the minority party they felt they had not had enough input into the decision-making process.

At that time and to this date, there have been only 13 pieces of legislation that have gone through the entire process and either been signed by the governor or are ready for his signature. There were several hundred pieces of legislation, sponsored by members of both parties, still in limbo, waiting for hearings, amendments and final actions. But the minority leadership chose to abrogate the responsibility of the General Court as one of the three co-equal branches of government and led their members in refusing to join a two-thirds vote to suspend the already past-due deadlines for action on those bills. They even turned down a motion to suspend rules and pass the “consent calendar” – bills that were passed by the committees on unanimous or near unanimous votes and considered non-controversial.

With that decisive denial of responsiveness to their constituents, the only actions that could then happen on bills that was not dependent on deadlines in the rules would be for the Senate to just pass any House bills in their possession or to amend House bills in their possession and send them back to the House to agree or disagree with their amendments.

Normally at this phase, the House would have the option of requesting committees of conference, a small “committee” made up of members from both House and Senate who would meet on a specific amended bill to compromise and craft a final bill using elements from both House and Senate versions that would then be voted on by both House and Senate.

But again, the actions by House Republicans prevented even that process from going forward. So, the Senate took on House bills that the House committees, with agreement from their lead minority member, recommended were important enough to go forward. The Senate held hearings on those House bills, grouped them (as many as 25 or more) by subject matter, including many of the Senate bills that their committees had recommended to pass, and included them in amendments on a select number of House bills.

Eighteen such “omnibus” bills were passed by the Senate on June 16 and sent to the House. The House committees were busy last week examining these bills, first to be sure that sections of House bills that the House had already voted on and passed were included correctly, and then to look at the Senate bills, which the House has not been able to hold hearings on and vet properly since the rules suspension to provide time to do that was not adopted.

This has been a major undertaking, and again, the chair of each House committee has reached out to the “ranking” member (usually the minority committee member with the most seniority) to inform them of the content in the bills pertinent to that committee and get their opinion.

The Senate is still considering a handful of bills, primarily dealing with election laws and redistricting, and child and justice issues, in hearings held this past week. The Senate is planning to meet in session on June 29 and may pass a few of these last bills with no amendment, which means they can go straight to the process for signature, or if they amend some, those will come to the House again for agreement.

The House is meeting on June 30, again at UNH, which is the last day it can meet within the constraints of the old rules. At that time, the House will vote on those “omnibus” bills. The only actions that can be taken on them will be to concur (agree with the entire Senate amendment) or non-concur (turn the entire package down). There will be no other choices because the House Republicans cut us out of the normal process.

Unlike sessions where committees of conference can be formed to excise portions of bills that the House does not agree with, that cannot happen this term due to the refusal to suspend rules, which would have allowed for those meetings.

So those are the hard choices committees have had to make as they recommend to the full House whether to concur or non-concur. The bills that are not accepted have some good pieces of legislation that all members of the House had agreed to when we passed them over to the Senate, but will go down because of other sections that are just too egregious. And some things that our committees are displeased with will pass because there are too many other things in that bill that are needed for the safety and health of our constituents.

We will hope that some of those pieces can be changed in the next session, but obviously, they will have to wait a year for correction. These are not easy choices but we will be doing our best to enact laws that will safeguard us all in these unusual times.

(Reps. Dianne Schuett and David Doherty represent Merrimack District 20, Chichester and Pembroke, in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.)

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