Thursday House Roundup: From election law and ‘vaccine freedom’ to remote meetings and background checks

By: and - June 3, 2021 7:08 pm
A historical marker in front of the State House

House members met Thursday at a site in Bedford rather than the State House in Concord. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire House was in session Thursday at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford. Here’s a roundup of some of the day’s big votes. (You can read a separate story about the defeat of right-to-work legislation here.)

House opts for control over local elections

A bill that began as a bipartisan effort to address election procedures became a referendum on national voting reform that has yet to pass.   

Senate Bill 89 contains measures to clarify the role of city clerks in state elections, tighten restrictions around photographs being taken while voting, and create a study commission about audits of election results and ballots. Both parties have called these efforts thoughtful and necessary. But while none of those proposals were particularly contentious, a non-germane amendment added to the legislation while it was before a House committee became the center of a heated debate.

Proponents of the amendment say the For the People Act, national voter reform, is the federal government overstepping its bounds. For them, the amendment is one way of pushing back and voicing their discontent with legislation being discussed in Washington.

“The so-called For the People Act is a massive power grab by D.C.,” said Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican. He said the non-germane amendment stands up for New Hampshire.

But Democrats have vehemently opposed the measure, which they say would create a two-tiered election system, if the For the People Act does indeed pass.

“The bill is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Rep. Paul Bergeron, a Nashua Democrat. If both the state and national proposals are passed into law, Bergeron said it would “create a logistical nightmare for state elections.”

Those in support aren’t sure that’s the case. Rep. Barbara Griffin, a Goffstown Republican, said the measure would “not necessarily require complete duplication of election efforts.”

Those opposed have argued that a rewrite of election laws would be required. The amendment passed, 202-175, and the bill passed on a voice vote.

‘Vaccine freedom’ narrowly defeated 

A bill codifying several COVID emergency orders passed the House, 271-97, after the “vaccine freedom” amendment was defeated. 

Senate Bill 155-FN contains various sections, codifying emergency orders that stem from the pandemic. This includes establishing temporary health partners, and clarifying licensing of certain medical providers. It also authorizes pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to administer COVID tests and vaccines. 

There is also language about outdoor dining measures and the use of summer camps. But the most contentious part of the bill came in the form of a non-germane amendment that would have banned public and private entities from requiring that employees, customers, or anyone else receive a vaccine. 

Rep. Terry Roy, a Deerfield Republican, a proponent of the amendment, spoke about it at length during the House session on Thursday. He said that he heard from constituents about employers requiring their employees to get vaccinated, in a so-called “vaccine passport” situation.

He argued that this could be a slippery slope, with employers imposing more stringent requirements on their employees in the future. 

“The list could go on and on,” he said, “anywhere the imagination leads you. Any potential illness or condition that cost employers money in the form of missed work or higher insurance premiums could be the next mandated vaccine or treatment.”

Rep. William Marsh, a Wolfeboro Republican, spoke in opposition to the amendment, which would apply to other vaccines beyond those used to prevent COVID. 

“Medically, this amendment makes no sense,” said Marsh, who is an ophthalmologist. “We all want to return to normal where people can again have large group gatherings of voluntary gathering of people who share the knowledge that they’ve been vaccinated.”

“If people don’t want to get vaccinated, they don’t need to participate,” he said. 

The amendment was narrowly defeated, 182-193, and without it, the bill then passed by a wide margin.  

House denies extended remote meetings

The House cut out language From Senate Bill 95-FN that would have extended remote access to government meetings through July 1, 2022, instead turning the omnibus proposal into a study commission about remote meetings. 

Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican, said that while remote meetings have helped the government navigate the pandemic, “the idea of having meetings with no physical location invites many problems, such as having a handful of protesters disrupt the meeting, and forcing an adjournment.”

Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, said that the remote meetings have been “one of the few things in the emergency orders that people have liked.” He was in favor of keeping remote meetings until the later date. 

“I also know that if we don’t pass this many public bodies, possibly including us actually, could be in a quandary because we might be unable to return to the facilities that we’re using pre pandemic,” he said. 

Communicable diseases as qualifying condition for absentee voting stripped from bill

The version of Senate Bill 31 passed by the House on Thursday eliminates language that would have made communicable diseases a qualifying condition for absentee voting in the future.

“The underlying bill does a number of laudable things,” said Rep. Russell Muirhead, a Hanover Democrat. “We believe that citizens suffering from communicable diseases should be permitted the use of absentee ballots, and for that reason, we oppose this.”

The bill simplifies absentee ballot affidavit envelopes, an effort which has bipartisan support. It also gives the supervisor of the checklist access to the statewide voter registration database, which Rep. Peter Hayward, a Milton Republican, said would improve the accuracy of voter lists. As introduced, the bill included language that would allow communicable diseases, like COVID, to be a qualifying condition so a person could vote by absentee ballot.

Hayward said that including communicable disease would be problematic, calling it “self-determined” and an “imprecise” unverifiable medical diagnosis.  

The amendment striking that language was approved. The bill, including the amendment, was passed, 214-162.

House passes ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ bill

The House voted, 199-177, to join several other states in passing legislation that prohibits the state from enforcing any federal rules or orders limiting or regulating access to guns when they are inconsistent with state laws regulating weapons and ammunition.

Because the House amended the Senate version of the bill, it must go back to the Senate for another vote on the changes.

The so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” bill has been supported by several gun rights groups that see President Joe Biden’s April gun-related executive orders as a threat to their constitutional right to bear arms. These include an order to reduce the proliferation of “ghost guns,” homemade firearms without traceable serial numbers.

Senate Bill 154 has been opposed by domestic violence advocates and others who argue that restricting the enforcement of gun laws would put the public at risk. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, was among them Thursday, citing firearms deaths of family members, saying he has “closed the coffin lid on the gunshot-riddled body of my father, and having closed the coffin lid on the gunshot-riddled body of my brother-in-law.” He continued, “Gun violence is something that strikes at the heart of many families in this state and in this country.”

Background-check bill passes

Citing long delays with the state police “Gun Line,” the House voted, 197-180, to pass Senate Bill 141, which would put all background checks on firearm purchases in the FBI’s hands. The state currently does background checks on handguns only, while the FBI handles long guns.

The bill would also allow county sheriffs to conduct their own federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) background checks when deciding whether to return firearms to individuals under a protective order for domestic violence or stalking.

The bill passed the Senate, 14-10, along party lines. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had recommended it be voted inexpedient to legislate, arguing the state police have addressed delays with its check. There was also concern passing the bill would allow the federal government to collect data on handgun owners.

The bill was championed by gun groups as well as Senate Republicans. House supporters included Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, who said earlier this year: “A yes vote on a motion to (designate as inexpedient to legislate) is a vote in favor of a wait period for gun buyers. This is an anti-gun vote.”

‘Main Street’ aid bill defeated

Businesses that opened within nine months of COVID-19 or during the pandemic were not eligible for federal “Main Street” aid last year. The Senate voted 23-1 to lift that deadline for future rounds of aid.

The New Hampshire House said no Thursday, following the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee’s 11-7 recommendation that the bill be voted inexpedient to legislate.

Opponents said Senate Bill 107 was irrelevant because future aid will be governed by federal rules, not state rules. Supporters argued the existing deadlines unfairly excluded businesses that have been no less hurt than the nearly 7,600 businesses that received aid from the Main Street Relief Fund.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.