3-Minute Civics: The New Hampshire Legislature in action
The program was years in the making and was added to the budget at the last minute by Senate Republicans over the objections of House Republicans. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
With the New Hampshire Legislature’s return to session in January, it is worth examining the legislative process in some detail because it is far more complicated than the catchy jingle about a bill’s journey to becoming a law that many of us remember from Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock!”: “I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.”
The Legislature has broad power to pass laws that promote the health, safety, general welfare, and even morals of the people in the state. Any of the 400 representatives or 24 senators can propose legislation. In New Hampshire, the process starts not with a bill, but with a Legislative Service Request, or “LSR.” Most often LSRs contain one to two sentences and very few details. The Legislature’s lawyers in the Office of Legislative Services then assist the lawmaker in translating his or her topic and intent into the precise language that will be introduced as a bill.
Representatives and senators have submitted 856 LSRs for the upcoming session. These range from proposals with broad application to the rights and responsibilities of all residents, including several measures apparently intent on expanding or restricting access to abortion and many proposals touching on COVID-19 vaccines or pandemic measures. Others appear to address narrower, specific issues, such as establishing a commission to study proper labeling and disposal of disposable wipes, or regulating the method of taking lobsters and crabs. See a full list at the Legislature’s homepage, www.gencourt.state.nh.us. Each LSR includes a link to the sponsor’s contact information for those with questions or thoughts to share.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for a legislator to sponsor a bill on behalf of a single constituent. Last session, House Bill 174 was enacted into law, creating a new requirement that drivers notify the owner or police when they hit a cat. Rep. Daryl Abbas of Salem told a Senate committee the bill was suggested by “a very concerned constituent” whose cat was hit and killed by an unknown driver. That cat was Arrow and the constituent was Rep. Abbas’s wife.
The state Constitution requires all budget bills begin in the House of Representatives. Bills on any other subject begin in the sponsor’s chamber. Some proposed legislation is withdrawn before it’s introduced, but a substantial number of the LSRs do become bills. Last year the House and Senate considered 776 bills.
A bill begins the legislative process before the relevant committee – legal issues most often start with the Senate or House Judiciary Committee, for example. An unusual, if not unique, feature of the legislative process in New Hampshire requires a public hearing for every proposed bill, during which anyone, even individuals who do not live or vote in New Hampshire, can testify and argue their position on the issue. It’s not unusual for hearings on particularly controversial topics to last hours because so many people want to weigh in.
The path from committee hearing to the governor’s desk is often neither direct nor fast. House Bill 542, which sought to limit in-person religious gatherings during a state of emergency, is a good example. In early March, the House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill. Following public input, the committee voted, 11-10, to amend the bill to substantially broaden its impact. As amended, the bill not only protected the right to in-person religious gatherings during a state of emergency, it also required the government to justify any action that burdened religious practices by showing that the government interest is compelling and its action is the least restrictive way to accomplish the government’s objective. When the amended bill made it to the full House a month after it was introduced, members passed it, 199-173.
That vote transferred House Bill 542 to the Senate, where the Senate Judiciary Committee had its own public hearing in early May. Over 290 people signed up to support the House’s version and 208 people opposed it. Some of those people who spoke in favor of the bill expressed concern that grocery, hardware, and liquor stores were allowed to remain open during the state of emergency, but houses of worship were closed. They took the position that religion should be treated the same as other essential services during a state of emergency. They also felt the amended bill brought New Hampshire statutes in line with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state constitution. Those who opposed the changes saw a difference between stores and churches where people gather in groups to sing and speak loudly. The opponents also felt that the state and federal constitutions provided sufficient protection for religious practice. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 3-2, to amend the bill again. The Senate version made a number of changes to the proposed legislation, including stripping out language justifying the need for the expanded protection of religious practices. The full Senate passed the amended version, 14-10, in late May.
Because those two amendments were so different from one another, the bill couldn’t head straight to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto. It went back to the House, where representatives rejected the Senate’s amendment and requested a “Committee of Conference.” That sent the bill to a group of four House members and three senators chosen by the speaker of the House and president of the Senate to negotiate a compromise. In June, six months after the bill was introduced, the Committee of Conference reached a compromise that won the support of both the House and Senate.
The bill’s next stop was the governor’s desk. He had three choices: veto it, sign it into law, or let it become law without endorsing it with his signature. On Aug. 16, 2021, Gov. Sununu signed it; two months later, the “New Hampshire Religious Liberties Act” went into effect.
While “Schoolhouse Rock!” may have suggested a bill’s path to law is a straightforward one, House Bill 542’s journey illustrates how many twists and turns there are along the way. And those twists and turns give the public plenty of opportunity to be heard along the way.
To follow legislation you are interested in, use the bill tracker on the Legislature’s home page: gencourt.state.nh.us.
Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.
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