Cannabis, immigration, freedom accounts, and bail: What to watch in the final legislative session

N.H. State House

N.H. State House DANA WORMALD—New Hampshire Bulletin

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-12-2024 9:54 AM

After a week of negotiations, “committee of conference” season is over. 

House and Senate representatives had until last Thursday to cobble together last-minute agreements on any bills the two chambers disagreed over. The process allowed select lawmakers – each appointed by the House speaker or Senate president – to voice hopes and frustrations over the outcome of the bills, and it led to both grand bargains and spectacular failures.  

Now, the full House and Senate are convening again this Thursday – for the last time until September – to vote on whether they agree with the compromise packages. Success is not a guarantee; rank-and-file members are still free to buck the negotiators’ efforts and kill the bills. 

Here’s a review of which bills made it through the negotiating process, and which fell flat. 

A test for cannabis

House and Senate negotiators reached some compromises on the cannabis legalization bill last week, but it remains to be seen whether the final package will have enough votes to pass the House.

The final arrangement for House Bill 1633 saw House negotiators agree to the state-controlled “franchise” model of cannabis stores, an approach favored by Gov. Chris Sununu, abandoning the “licensee” model that would have given store owners more control over layout and advertising. The House also assented to the Senate’s proposed 15 percent tax on cannabis sales.

Meanwhile, the Senate agreed to allow more cannabis industry representation to the cannabis control board that would craft the rules and regulations around growing, testing, and selling. And senators agreed to change the bill to legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis immediately upon Sununu’s signature, departing from their earlier position that the implementation should be delayed by two years. 

The tweaks were meant to address some of House lawmakers’ concerns; Democratic and Republican supporters of cannabis legalization had voiced strong objections to the franchise approach. The 400-member body will vote Thursday on whether to push the final package forward. 

A Senate victory on immigration crackdowns

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Lawmakers have considered several immigration-related bills this year. One survived and will be up for a final vote Thursday.

Following the committee of conference negotiations, the House will get back the so-called “sanctuary city” legislation it defeated in May that would require the police to cooperate with federal immigration detainers in some situations. Similar legislation has failed nearly a dozen times since 2006.

After the House voted down the bill last month, Senate Republicans revived the legislation last week by attaching it to House Bill 1292, an insurance-related bill that would remove the requirement that young adult children covered under a retired state employee’s insurance plan be full-time students.

The bill now contains both the insurance and immigration piece, though the latter has been scaled back from the Senate’s initial version. 

Under the pending bill, local law enforcement would have to honor federal detention retainers only when they have charged someone with a violation of New Hampshire law. That would be in line with what several law enforcement officers told lawmakers they already do. 

Police and other local officials said they opposed holding people not charged with a crime on a civil immigration detainer because local law enforcement is not authorized to enforce federal law and doing so would jeopardize the relationships they have worked to build with diverse communities. 

Bail reform edges closer to a deal

The House and Senate have long quarreled over how best to change the state’s bail laws, which Republicans and some Democrats argue should be strengthened. 

This year, House and Senate negotiators may have found a compromise. The final proposal for House Bill 318 would establish magistrates to be able to hold arraignments to determine bail when judges are unavailable. It would also set aside a set of violent felonies that would carry higher bail implications: People charged with the felonies would be automatically held in jail until they could receive an arraignment, but the bill also requires that they receive an arraignment within 24 hours of their arrest. 

The Senate conceded to the House on one major point: the standard of evidence required to hold someone charged with a violent felony without bail. Senators had pressed for requiring that judges find only “a preponderance of evidence” that a person would pose a danger to themselves or others in order to hold them without bail. But the final bill reverts to the requirement that judges find “clear and convincing evidence” of danger, a higher standard.

Expansion of education freedom accounts in sight

Both House and Senate Republicans have supported raising the income caps for the education freedom accounts program, the voucher-like system that allows parents to use state education dollars toward private or homeschooling expenses. 

Currently, that program is limited to people making up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level, or $109,200 for a family of four. In House Bill 1665, House Republicans had pushed for that to be raised to 500 percent, or $156,000 for a family of four, while Senate Republicans had asked for 400 percent. In the end, the chambers agreed to settle on 425 percent. That amounts to $132,600 in total income for a family of four. 

Democrats have strongly opposed the eligibility increase, arguing it will create long-term financial burdens on the state and reduce the amount of funds available to public schools.

A string of failed negotiations

Despite agreements, a number of bills stumbled at the finish line. In a handful of cases, negotiators were unable to find agreement before the deadline last Thursday. 

Lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a bill that would have created an online election portal that would have allowed online voter registration in the state. And negotiators were unable to pass a bill that would have allowed schools to hire part-time teachers without requiring that they have state teaching certifications. 

Immigration-related bills that failed include one that would invalidate undocumented individuals’ out-of-state driver’s licenses; another that would have required employers to use a federal electronic database to confirm their employees’ work eligibility; and a third that would have ended the annual funding of the governor’s Northern Border Alliance Program.

Those bills are now dead for the rest of the year. The House and Senate will each meet at 10 a.m. Thursday to take up votes on the compromises reached by the committees of conference.