Despite historic meeting, New Hampshire House suffers partisan breakdown

  • New Hampshire Rep. Al Baldasaro (R-Londonderry) wears a "Trump 2020" face mask as he walks among his colleagues during a legislative session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • N.H. Rep. Larry Laflamme, D-Coos Co., gestures as he speaks with a colleague during a legislative session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • New Hampshire Rep. Steve Woodcock (D-Carroll Co.) has his temperature taken as he arrives for a legislative session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A worker disinfects a hand rail as the N.H. House of Representatives gather in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • This recent photo photo showes chairs that are set up at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, N.H., for the 400 House lawmakers who will hold a socially-distanced session there on Thursday, June 11, 2020. It will be the first time the House has met outside of the Statehouse since the Civil War. (Jeremy Gasowski/The University of New Hampshire) Jeremy Gasowski

Monitor staff
Published: 6/11/2020 5:03:04 PM
Modified: 6/11/2020 5:02:52 PM

The optics were extraordinary – spaced out seats, remote control buttons, legislative face shields and socially distant sandwiches.

The legislating? Somewhat less than that.

Over four hours on Thursday, the New Hampshire House of Representatives failed to advance almost any of the new legislation on its agenda, passing over attempts to address racial profiling in the wake of George Floyd; rent relief in the wake of the COVID-19 economic crisis; expanded oversight over the Division for Children, Youth and Families; and business tax protections proposed by House Republicans.

The House did come together around one topic: beer. A bill proposed by Rep. Andrew Prout to loosen the restrictions on filling beer growlers in restaurants during the pandemic will advance to the Senate.

Other areas fell short. More than 30 bills, many with bipartisan support, did not advance – or even receive a vote.

The political stasis came in part as a rebuke of Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff by House Republicans, who have objected to the legislative process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early in the proceedings Thursday, House Republicans declined to support an effort to extend bill deadlines, effectively rendering a slate of active bills dead on arrival.

That meant that to rescue the bills required a two-thirds vote, which Democrats were unable to muster.

One of the victims of the process was a bill to ban racial profiling among New Hampshire law enforcement. New Hampshire is one of a minority of states that don’t prohibit the practice. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, wanted to draft a last-minute bill to change that.

The bill narrowly missed a two thirds majority, 210-140, after Republican objections that it was rushed.

In another effort, Speaker Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, introduced a constitutional amendment that would let the House meet remotely during times of state emergencies.

Presently, the New Hampshire Legislature is allowed to meet remotely only in circumstances “resulting from disasters caused by enemy attack.” The language, which was added to the constitution after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, has never been used. Shurtleff’s amendment would have expanded the definition of disasters to include states of emergencies declared by the state governor.

But Republican representatives said that more than two weeks was needed to vet the amendment. It fell 197-143, by not hitting the two-thirds threshold.

Some of the efforts that fell short Thursday were Republican initiatives.

A push by Republican Leader Dick Hinch to eliminate a tax trigger that could raise business taxes in 2021 fell after Democratic opposition. The proposal would have ended a portion of the state budget passed last year that would increase the business profits tax rate from 7.7% to 7.9% if revenues fall short by 6% by the end of Fiscal Year 2020.

Hinch and others have argued that the unpredicted economic crisis prompted by COVID-19 means that the trigger should be reversed now, to give businesses certainty that taxes won’t be raised next year.

Democrats countered that the House should wait until the revenue estimates are finalized in January. And they said the matter isn’t urgent because businesses don’t owe business taxes until April 2021.

Democratic Majority Leader Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat, called the bill a “politically opportunistic proposal,” “akin to making tax policy on the back of a napkin, on the back of an envelope.” That prompted outrage from Republican members, and a sharp reply from Hinch.

“I believe if we do nothing it will be on the backs of businesses,” Hinch said. The effort to suspend the rules failed 154-174.

Meanwhile, one group of House Republicans came after one of their own: Gov. Chris Sununu. Rep. Prout pressed for a resolution to strip back some of the powers the governor has received after declaring a state of emergency back in March. Those powers have enabled his stay-at-home order, which some Republicans argued should never have been invoked.

“I am immune compromised. I have at least four risk factors for this disease,” said Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican. “...But I consider it totally immoral for me to ask or expect a person to lose their business in order for me to be safe.”

Prout argued the bill would restore the Legislature to its rightful role in passing laws. But the effort failed, 57-280.

Though no new bills were approved Thursday, some that had already been sent to the Senate – and did not require a two thirds majority – did pass. That included House Bill 253, the “ban the box” legislation that would prohibit public sector employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal history on the application form. Instead, the employers must wait until the job interview, when it can be asked in person.

That bill, which passed 192-137, now heads to the governor.

Thursday’s overall inaction proved frustrating for both sides. But the situation came out of unique circumstances driven by the pandemic.

Prior to Thursday, the New Hampshire House had been suspended since March, when COVID-19 began to spread widely in the United States. That meant it missed a series of key deadlines to advance bills to the Senate by the end of the 2020 session.

Extending those deadlines – and keeping the legislation alive – required a two-thirds vote to suspend House rules. Though House Democrats control the chamber, they did not have the numbers to extend the deadlines without Republican support.

The vote not to extend the deadlines meant individual bills needed special exemptions to be debated and voted on, each of which required a two-thirds vote. Most of those bills did not meet that requirement.

The legislative process now heads to the Senate, which is working to cobble together “omnibus” packages of bills. The House will reconvene June 30 to take final votes.




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