New Hampshire House holds marathon voting session to wrap up the year

  • 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

Monitor staff
Published: 6/30/2020 6:11:53 PM

Two weeks after doing very little, the New Hampshire House on Tuesday seemed to do everything.

In a brisk but ambitious session – its last of the year – the 400-member chamber took on an usually hefty agenda Tuesday, passing dozens of “omnibus” mega-packages of legislation driven by unusual times.

Meeting for the second time at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, the chamber passed an overhaul of the absentee ballot process aimed at the COVID-19 pandemic; a prohibition on police chokeholds in non-life-threatening situations; rent protections; funds for expanding broadband; insurance mandates for abortion services; net metering expansion; closing sexual assault loopholes; and importing drugs from Canada, among many others.

But a litany of votes Tuesday passed on party lines, evidence of lingering pandemic-era tensions between Democratic and Republican leadership that came to a boiling point earlier this month.

Republicans have raged against what they say is a lack of communication from Democrats since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the House to stop meeting in March. They’ve contended for weeks that they were not sufficiently included in discussions over bill priorities, accusations that Democrats deny. Three weeks ago, Republicans used their leverage to quash an effort to extend key deadlines that had been missed due to the pandemic, killing dozens of bills indiscriminately.

Since then, the state Senate took control over the process, taking advantage of scheduling rules that allow bills coming from the Senate to still be passed by the House. For weeks, Senate committees have hammered together mammoth legislative packages of three to 10 bills – each bundled under themes – bringing back some House priorities that had been swept away.

On Tuesday, the final voting day of the year, the House took up those packaged bills.

To start, the House passed a bill aimed at protecting both workers and voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives voted 178-154 in favor of a bill that would permanently implement changes made to the state’s unemployment system during the state of emergency and would extend the federal Family Medical Leave Act to allow workers to take time off for virus-related reasons. It also would require paid leave for virus testing and state-provided personal protective equipment for small businesses.

“This is a bill about getting people back to work, but back to work in safe conditions,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey.

And the House passed a bill to streamline the absentee voting process amid concerns about the coronavirus. Based on the recommendations of a recent task force, the bill would create a new box to check that specifies the virus as the reason for not voting in person.

It also would allow voters to use one application to receive absentee ballots for both the Sept. 8 state primary and Nov. 3 general election. And it would allow town officials to begin processing ballots several days before the election, though they could not view them or tally the votes until Election Day.

“Voters should not be forced to risk their physical health to participate in the most fundamental right of a U.S. citizen, the right to vote,” Ley said.

Opponents argued that the bill would violate the state constitution, which allows absentee ballots only for those who are absent from their home towns or cities on Election Day or who can’t vote in person “by reason of physical disability.”

“Getting scared because you may catch COVID-19 does not constitute a disability,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry.

The state attorney general, however, has said that concern over the virus would qualify as a disability. The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously Monday, was sent to the governor on a vote of 221-101.

In other bills, the House voted to expand the authority of the Office of the Child Advocate, the recently created watchdog office over the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

In a 209-119 vote, the chamber voted to pass House Bill 1162, which broadened the jurisdiction of the office to cover all state departments and made the director independent of the Attorney General’s Office.

On a tight, party-line vote, the House moved to require that insurance plans in New Hampshire cover abortion services if they already cover maternity services. That vote was 196-132.

They moved forward on a prescription drug pricing package, including implementing a price cap on prescription insulin – which can cost patients hundreds of dollars – at $30 a month.

And in that same package, the House authorized New Hampshire to create a wholesale prescription drug importation program to bring in drugs from Canada at a cheaper price.

The House also moved to ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement, except in cases in which the officer fears for his life. The ban came as part of a police reform legislative package that included another provision to require psychological screenings for all new officers in New Hampshire.

That package passed with broad support, 255-74.

The assortment of end-of-year bills passed Tuesday will now head to the governor’s desk after moving through the enrolment process, which could take weeks or months.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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