‘Veto Day’ adds to discord

Monitor staff
Published: 9/16/2020 5:00:05 PM

House Bill 1234 was not one of the stars of the 2020 New Hampshire legislative session. The 77-page bill was packed with dense provisions, a dull omnibus of statutory updates and bureaucratic tweaks.

But HB 1234, as cut and dried as the name suggests, was vetoed this summer by Gov. Chris Sununu. And in many ways, its fate represents the entire, twisting arc of the 2020 legislative session and its acrimonious finale.

The bill started as a simple upgrade to the heating systems in state buildings. It ballooned into an omnibus of almost 40 different bills as part of a COVID-19-era bundling process by the state Senate.

Then, on Wednesday, it suffered its final blow, after the House failed to clear the two-thirds threshold to override the veto, in a 192-145 vote.

The story of how an unremarkable package of minor updates fell headfirst into a partisan machine is part of the same story that played out in vote after vote on Wednesday, as House and Senate lawmakers returned for one final day to attempt to override nearly three dozen vetoed bills from Sununu.

New Hampshire’s “Veto Day” was packed with all the regular inter-party flashpoints, from quarrels over a temporary firearm restriction bill to a bill raising the state minimum wage.

And in one party-line decision after the other, those vetoes were sustained – not overturned – and the bulk of the Democrats’ legislative agenda fell for good.

Much of the final result was inevitable: The disagreements between the parties were ideological, not personal, and some would never have had broad bipartisan support. Yet the bigger trajectory of 2020 – a slate of Democratically supported bills proposed, vetoed and then shot down on party lines – appears driven by deeper trends and frustrations.

HB 1234 was never meant to be controversial, its sponsors maintain. It was a composite of many smaller bills, most of them were requests from departments under Sununu for simple changes.

But when the coronavirus shut down legislative operations and caused bills to miss key deadlines, and when a caucus of House Republicans declined to extend those deadlines, HB 1234 became one of several vehicles for the Senate to salvage major policy by throwing it all together into a package.

Suddenly, the state buildings' heating bill was also a bill making a technical correction to the death benefits statute for first responders; composting rules for the Department of Environmental Services; and the creation of a Lakes Region development authority to implement a six-year master plan.

The volume of the bill attracted the public ire of the governor. “While I understand the unusual and unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely unfortunate that the legislature decided to manage their workload by merging nearly 40 previously separate pieces of legislation into this one 77 page omnibus bill,” Sununu said in his veto message.

“Despite the pandemic, it is important to remember that this bill is the byproduct of House leadership’s unwillingness to work with the entire body to develop a plan to move forward with its session,” he added.

Democratic supporters tried to salvage the bill Wednesday, calling Sununu’s veto inexplicable, given his support for other “omnibus” bills this year and his lack of a policy reason for vetoing. Republicans, in turn, castigated the process, objecting to passing provisions that hadn’t even received a hearing in the House. In the end, the vote was nearly party line.

It was one of many bills that suffered that fate. As legislative years go, 2020 felt especially heated and unproductive. Members of both parties have different theories as to why.

To Rep. Kris Schultz, a Concord Democrat, many of her interactions with Republican colleagues at the committee-level have been productive and respectful. But thrown into the arena of the full House sessions, the two parties revert to their oppositional poles, Schultz said outside the Dairy Bar during a lunch break.

That behavior has been inspired by President Donald Trump, argued Rep. Cam Kenney, a Durham Democrat standing next Schultz.

“It’s clear partisanship on every level is much more strongly held today,” he said. “And I think the rhetoric that you see in Washington can easily trickle down to state legislators and even on the local level. But at the end of the day, the Democrats need to put forward bills that are productive to New Hampshire.”

Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican, sees it differently. Since 2018, New Hampshire has lived in divided government, he said. Democrats have had commanding but not veto-proof majorities in the State House; the Republican governor has kept his perch in the corner office. A wave of vetoes is simply the result, he said.

But also, he said, there wasn’t enough outreach.

“I think this is a culmination of the Democratic failure of working with the governor,” he said. “So it must be frustrating right now to be a Democrat because we had the hand out and it was extended to them and they failed to reach out as well.”

He also highlighted the less-covered bills that regularly do receive bipartisan support.

Both sides say the lack of communication and compromise this year was noteworthy. Schultz blamed Republicans for not considering even watered-down versions of ideas like the minimum wage. Alexander said that Democrats had brushed off all of Sununu’s counter-proposals in areas like net metering and paid family and medical leave.

Rep. Betty Gay, a Salem Republican, interrupted her lunch to offer a simpler conclusion.

“It’s hard lines,” she said, referring to the parties’ positions. “That’s the trouble. It’s like the Democrats have never met a fee increase they didn’t love.”

On Wednesday, most representatives rushed through the vetoes, placidly sitting through the votes and leaving behind fiery denunciations and speeches. Most of the remarks were short and debate was rare.

There was little point; everyone knew where things would go.

By the end of the day, it almost seemed like the body was going to cap off the year with an uneasy peace.

But then, in the final moments, months and months' worth of distrust, online vitriol, and election-year tensions burst to the surface.

Speaker Steve Shurtleff announced that beer cans had been found in the trash cans near the “mask-free” area – an area populated exclusively by Republicans – and barely covered the anger in his voice in response.

Then, a personal address at the end of the day by Rep. Wendy Thomas, a Merrimack Democrat referencing Black Lives Matter and the accusations of Russian bounties against American troops caused Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, to angrily rebuke Shurtleff for allowing the speech to take place. Baldasaro tossed his mask on the floor and strode to the exit.

In a heartfelt speech directly afterward, Rep. Diane Schuett, a Pembroke Democrat, brought the room together with a remembrance of 9/11, and a tribute to personal sacrifice. It was the sort of speech that could put a halt to momentary feelings of resentment for anyone.

By that time, though, nearly half the room was gone.

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