N.H. House passes bill to refund COVID fines, in rebuke to governor

  • Democratic House Minority Leader Renny Cushing (right) holds up a protective suit prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session in Bedford. Charles Krupa / AP

  • Legislators listen to speakers during a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, on Wednesday in Bedford. Charles Krupa / AP

  • Louise Spencer, of Concord, N.H., holds up signs in protest to the in-person gathering of the New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. Many legislators wished to attend the session remotely due to the virus outbreak concerns, but were denied. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • Legislators stand for a moment of silence in honor of former House Speaker Richard Hinch during a New Hampshire House of Representatives session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus,, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. Speaker Hinch, a Republican from Merrimack, died of COVID-19 a week after being sworn in December 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • A sign directs Republican and Democrat legislators to their parking areas as a N.H. State Trooper watches the flow of traffic prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • Protestors support Democrat legislators, who arrive for a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • N.H. Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, right, addresses a session of the New Hampshire House of Representatives held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • Legislators stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

  • Legislators gather prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

Monitor staff
Published: 2/24/2021 12:18:12 PM

 

The New Hampshire House passed a bill that would refund fines issued to businesses for violating COVID-19 orders, the first successful rebuke of Gov. Chris Sununu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by members of his own party. 

House Bill 63 would stop the state from continuing to enforce one of Sununu’s most significant orders: Executive Order 65, which established fines of up to $1,000 for business owners, property owners or individuals that violate COVID-19 rules and regulations. Those fines have been issued by the Attorney General's office to businesses in recent months; about $10,000 in fines have been issued in total. 

Under the bill, all fines issued to businesses under any of Sununu’s executive orders would need to be voided and refun ded, and any licenses that were revoked or suspended would need to be restored.

The legislation would require the annulment of any criminal records related to COVID-19 orders as well.

Supporters said the bill would undo what was an unconstitutional order and allow businesses to move out from under unnecessary financial burdens.

“HB 63 as amended is simply the beginning, the first step in addressing the pain that has been experienced by the businesses and the people over the last year,” said Rep. Chris True,” a Sandown Republican.

But Sununu reacted angrily Wednesday, suggesting that he would veto the bill should it reach his desk.

“We can’t claim to support law and order, then incentivize law-breaking and reward those who do not follow the rules,” the governor said in a statement. “Our reasonable public health guidelines allowed us to keep our economy open. Rewarding the small handful who recklessly thwarted public health and safety after outreach and educational attempts is a complete disservice to the thousands of small businesses who worked tirelessly to keep their employees and customers safe while enabling our economy to stay open for business.” 

The bill passed 188-169, but it must head to the House Finance Committee and then to a second vote on the House floor before it can move on to the Senate.

The legislation was buoyed by a faction of libertarian-minded Republicans, who have attempted in the past to pass bills dismantling some of Sununu’s executive actions, including by unwinding the state of emergency itself. This time, under a Republican-governed House, those efforts were successful. 

HB 63 set up unusual allies: Democrats sided with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s use of his emergency powers, while Republicans, by and large, opted to rein in that power.

“I am not a fan of governing by emergency order,” said Rep. David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat. “But there are times when the best way isn’t the best option. And this is one of those times.”

Meuse added that with around 1,200 deaths in New Hampshire due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the virus, the bill was “ill-timed and unwise.” Passing the bill would give businesses a green light to ignore state rules around mask usage and COVID mitigation requirements, he argued.

“It would send a clear and unmistakable message to those who disagree with orders designed to protect public health that they are not free to flout those orders without any worry of long-term consequences,” Meuse said. 

Democrats attempted to table the bill, arguing that it would likely take effect after the pandemic state of emergency ends and that it was unnecessary. 

But Rep. Andrew Prout, a Hudson Republican, argued that the bill was needed to heal divisions that sprouted during the pandemic between businesses and the attorney general. And he said that it would have real-term effects for some. 

“This bill is not just about the businesses that have been fined, but also about the businesses that fear they may be next,” Prout said. 

Independent redistricting effort falls

Two years after Democrats first attempted it, the push for an independent committee to help New Hampshire lawmakers redraw the state districts appears fully dead.

In a 198-158 vote Wednesday, the House voted down House Bill 121, which would have created a 15-member advisory body to propose a way to set up the state’s districts after the 2020 Census. Under the bill, five members would be chosen by Democrats, five by Republicans, and five more elected by the first ten. 

Gov. Sununu had vetoed similar efforts to do so in 2019 and 2020, arguing that the process should remain wholly with the Legislature. A Senate bill doing the same was struck down in that chamber on Feb 11. 

On Wednesday, Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat and longtime advocate for an independent redistricting process, said that New Hampshire citizens supported the idea of an independent commission to draw the lines, which proponents say would reduce the chance of gerrymandered districts that benefit one party. 

The present process allows the dominant party in the Legislature in the year after the Census – which this year is the Republican party – to control the process, proponents of reform say. 

“Today we can do it right – we can overturn this very close election law committee vote,” Smith said. “We can all say that we recognize that this is an issue of right and wrong. We don’t gloat about whether we have certain votes and we don’t have certain votes, because for us it’s about good government.”

But Republicans have long opposed the concept of a separate committee, contending that the process of lawmakers drawing the lines themselves is the most representative.

And they said that the bill would violate the state constitution and could lead to a process controlled by party leaders.

“This commission, if we were to create it, would become a smaller, appointed, non-elected, partisan group further separated from the will of New Hampshire voters,” said Rep. Fenton Groem, a Rochester Republican.




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