Commentary

Commentary: What kind of state do you want to be, New Hampshire?

May 28, 2021 6:12 am
New Hampshire state house

The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday voted along party lines to table a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to use the federal money for 13 new positions. (Getty Images)

One of two things is happening right now in New Hampshire: Either our state’s values are fundamentally shifting, or the state’s true values are finally showing through and we’ve all been duped for the past several years. 

A few examples. For the past four years, our state has made consistent and bipartisan progress on LGBTQ rights. This includes enacting state laws to bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity, ensure that health insurance policies cover gender affirmation care, add an “X” gender marker to driver’s licenses, and to ban conversion therapy. 

This progress came with bipartisan support, with some of this legislation even passing in a Republican-controlled Legislature and all with a Republican governor. 

New Hampshire has consistently been a state that supports reproductive health care. This makes sense. We claim to be a state that values privacy, and abortion services are in fact about medical privacy. Keep the government out of my doctor’s office. 

If the government doesn’t want to join me and my doctor for my pap smear or my neighbor’s colonoscopy, it shouldn’t barge into the doctor’s office over abortion care. 

While nearly every session inevitably sees bills aimed at restricting abortion – or pushing blatantly false information about abortion – such bills have consistently been defeated, often with bipartisan votes. 

If you spent much time in the Legislative Office Building back before COVID-19, you used to consistently hear broad respect for the First Amendment. Again, a state that claims to cherish liberty, its independence, and even its “Live free or die” motto was naturally a state that defended free speech. 

So what’s happened? Because something has definitely happened over the past year. Bills are passing out of committee and passing full chambers that not only restrict access to abortion, but are premised on entirely false, dangerous narratives about medical professionals in this state. There is legislation to criminalize doctors for providing health care.

This Legislature is suddenly pro-censorship, championing legislation that will ban speech about racism and sexism – two issues that have and still do profoundly shape our laws and institutions in this country, and yes, even in this state. 

And by the way, refusing to talk about racism does not make racism go away. Quite the opposite. 

I’ve spoken to Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and we all agree that we’ve never seen a legislative session like this one – and nobody thinks that’s a good thing. I’ve spoken to more legislators in the past six months who say they’ve had enough and do not intend to run again than during any previous legislative session. And we’re barely seven months out from the last election. Already legislators of both parties know they don’t want to re-up for another two years of this. This isn’t legislating, they say, this is bullying. 

I mentioned two possible explanations for these pernicious trends. There is a third, and in many respects, it is the most troubling: Granite Staters’ values haven’t changed; certain legislators just don’t feel the need to pay lip service to them anymore.

Democracy is premised on elected representation, and on the notion that elected officials will reflect the values and priorities of their constituents. Is that true here? Do we think that the New Hampshire public has gone from championing LGBTQ rights to being an accomplice to blatant discrimination in the guise of religious liberty? 

Do we think that the New Hampshire public, thousands of whom peacefully took to the streets in recent years to champion racial justice, now support censoring speech and using the law to block discussion about racism? 

Do we think that the New Hampshire public wants to see our state go the way of Mississippi and Kentucky, where there is a race amongst legislators to draft the most harmful, restrictive abortion bill possible? 

Do New Hampshire taxpayers want to start ponying up their money for litigation on these issues? 

I really want to believe not. I do not think that legislation to censor speech or to ban abortion care or to allow blatant discrimination reflects New Hampshire. But I’m increasingly struggling for something to point to in proving that. 

And here is what really makes me scared. I asked a legislator recently why they were voting for a particular bill that I didn’t think that legislator actually supported or even cared about, and their response was: “It’s politics. We have to give them something.” 

“It’s politics” is the worst answer for throwing civil rights under the bus. It’s the worst answer for transforming our state from one that legislates liberty to one that merely uses it as a bumper sticker. 

And when legislators say “We have to give them something,” who is the “them”? Because I really don’t think that’s Granite State voters. Do we think that a majority of Granite Staters want to block abortion access? Or censor speech? Or discriminate against LGBTQ Granite Staters?  

The toxicity of Washington has finally reached Concord, and it’s not a good look, New Hampshire. This obsession with culture wars, on censoring speech, and targeting civil rights, it’s ugly. It makes our state look abysmal. 

We’re 18 months out, but we already know what the next election is going to be about: What kind of state does New Hampshire want to be? Do we actually care about so-called liberty anymore? Or was that just a tagline that’s been swapped for “Live in fear or leave”? 

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