House, Senate negotiators to begin work on 29 bills in ‘committees of conference’

By ETHAN DEWITT, HADLEY BARNDOLLAR, AND ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-16-2023 12:42 PM

Lawmakers surprised many in Concord last week when the House and Senate passed a budget that required no end-of-session negotiations, a historical rarity. But that doesn’t mean they’re done for the year.

While most of the hundreds of bills that were filed at the beginning of the year have been either killed or passed and sent to Gov. Chris Sununu by now, there are a handful that remain on which the House and Senate do not see eye to eye.

For the next week, House and Senate negotiators will meet in “committees of conference”: negotiations in which three members of each chamber will try to hash out an agreement over some of the more contentious bills. Those agreements – if they are reached – will then require a final approval vote by the full House and Senate.

Each of the 29 bills being negotiated started in one chamber to do one thing, and were later amended by the other chamber to do another thing. Here are some of the negotiations to keep an eye on in the coming days:

‘Gay panic’ defense

House Bill 315, as originally introduced, would have ended what is colloquially called the “gay panic defense” – the ability for a person accused of murder to reduce their sentence to manslaughter if they can show that they killed a person as a result of an extreme emotional or mental response to learning about the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The original version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Shaun Filiault, a Keene independent, barred that as a defense and stipulated that a defendant could not use “an unwanted nonforcible romantic or sexual advance” against them by the victim as a defense, nor cite the fact that they had a romantic or sexual relationship with the victim. But the House passed a different version of the bill that instead requires prosecutors to prove that the homicide “resulted from the defendant’s hostility” to the victim’s sexual orientation in order to block the defense – a different standard than the mere “discovery of” the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity proposed in the original bill. The Senate is pushing to restore the bill to the language proposed by Filliault.

Nursing mothers

When it left the House, House Bill 358 ran about 10 lines and sought only to clarify the state’s administrative rulemaking process. The Senate expanded it considerably.

As amended, it would add rights for nursing mothers in the workplace. And if the state paid someone too much in unemployment, it would be prohibited in some cases from charging interest when attempting to reclaim the money.

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The state called for accommodations for nursing mothers in a 2019, “infants in the workplace” policy, requiring that nursing mothers be given “reasonable time” and space to breastfeed or express milk. The Senate’s amendments would make requirements more specific, including a break of about 30 minutes for every three hours of work for one year of the child’s birth.

Landfill setbacks

The only landfill siting bill that passed both the House and Senate this session is headed to a committee of conference, after prime sponsor Sen. Kevin Avard disagreed with changes made by the House.

Senate Bill 61, which was heavily debated in the House, would direct the Department of Environmental Services to hire an outside consultant and embark on a rulemaking process to revise setbacks for new landfill proposals. It would also put a two-year abeyance into effect for any new landfill applications.

State-controlled cannabis legalization

Following a May announcement by Sununu that he would support cannabis legalization in New Hampshire only if the state were to control all sales, the Senate is pushing to assemble a commission of experts to study that model over the summer. But the chamber did so by adding the proposal to an unrelated bill that would expand who could access medical marijuana in the state, House Bill 611.

The House is raising objections to adding that study commission into the medical marijuana bill.

Uninspected meat

A House bill that started as an effort to allow homestead food operations to sell food from a residence, a farm stand, or farmers markets became something else in the Senate, which added provisions for the sale of meat from uninspected bison, elk, or red deer. The House disagreed with the additions and requested a committee of conference on House Bill 119.

Online voter registration

As originally introduced, Senate Bill 70 would have allowed the secretary of state to create an “election information portal” to let residents register to vote online when they move to a new town. The portal would also allow voters to request absentee ballots and update their name and address information within the voter file.

But the House added an unrelated amendment to the bill that would have allowed the secretary of state to give some of its federal grant money to towns to help them replace aging voting machines. Republican Sen. James Gray, the chairman of the Senate Election Committee, has opposed that addition, arguing the federal funds should be used for specific purposes and that towns should buy their own voting machines.

Election audits

Both the House and the Senate have voted to pass Senate Bill 157, a bill requiring state-run Election Day audits of ballot counting machines in New Hampshire. But the two chambers differ on how to do it.

The Senate wants to require that four randomly selected towns or city wards are audited; the House wants to expand that to eight. And the Senate wants a proportion – at least 4 percent – of the ballots cast in each town to be audited. The House wants a fixed number – at least 100 – to be audited, with a provision allowing the Secretary of State’s Office to expand that number if there are significant discrepancies found, or order a full hand count if desired.

Electric grid modernization

The Senate doesn’t concur with changes made by the House to Senate Bill 166, which would allow the Department of Energy and Public Utilities Commission to implement the use of distributed energy resources, transactive energy, enhanced demand response, and distributed generation and storage for grid modernization for New Hampshire.

The House changed several instances of language, including what credits for actual avoided transmission charges are to be based on, and increased allowable megawatts for pilot projects, as well as the amount of pilots.

Mental health licensing

Senate Bill 207 went to the House with a proposed study of the state’s mental health licensing and a clarification of the term “peer support” services provided following a crisis. The House added a measure that would allow conditional licenses for clinical mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists.

Use of game cameras

Senators tacked onto House Bill 221, a bill about acquisition of agricultural land rights, unrelated provisions that would add to state statute the definition of “game camera” and permit the use of them to take or attempt to take a game or fur-bearing animal.

No person would be allowed to place a game camera on private property without the consent of the property owner, and state-owned or managed lands would be exempt from requiring landowner permission. The House didn’t agree with the Senate’s additions and requested a committee of conference.

Energy omnibus

The House is contesting major changes made by the Senate to House Bill 281. The Senate turned the bill into an energy omnibus of sorts, compiling five different priorities.

As changed by the Senate, the bill would repeal the requirement for electric and natural gas utilities to submit least cost integrated resource plans to the Public Utilities Commission; remove the requirement that a municipal host under the Limited Electrical Energy Producers Act be located in the same municipality as all group members; require the Department of Energy to provide an estimated annual cost of compliance with electric renewable portfolio standards in customer’s electric bills; repeal the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board and transfer some responsibilities to the Department of Energy; and make various changes to the energy facility Site Evaluation Committee and permitting process.

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