Vaccine, environment, energy, and abortion will dominate legislative session
The Legislature reconvenes Jan. 5 to take up more than 900 bills. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Lawmakers won’t have a budget to write, debate, and negotiate this session, but with at least 900 bills awaiting their return on Jan. 5, it will be another busy year. We told you about some of the under-the-radar bills last month. We’re back with a preview of the bills that will be front and center, ranging from the COVID-19 vaccine and limits on abortion to education funding, voting rights, and energy.
The most significant COVID-19 vaccine legislation to become law last session prohibits state and local governments from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees. (Though Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed the “immunization freedom” bill, said in September that he believes public school districts could still mandate the vaccine for staff in spite of the legislation.)
Expect the COVID-19 vaccine debate to return with more than 30 bills that range from vaccine limits and mandates to a vaccine insurance wellness incentive.
House Bill 1481 would repeal the immunization freedom bill, while House Bill 1332 would allow the mandate prohibition to remain but exempt the state’s university and community college systems.
A group of nine lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, want to require private employers and post-secondary schools to accept – without question – vaccine exemption requests that cite medical, religious, or conscientious objector reasons.
That legislation, House Bill 1210, would eliminate the discretion employers now have to evaluate the merits of exemption requests. Employers say requests for religious exemptions are outnumbering those for medical reasons, a change since COVID-19. Many are already granting the requests without investigation, and instead focusing on what accommodations to offer, such as requiring unvaccinated employees to mask at work or test regularly for the virus.
Expect heated debates over House Bill 1606, which would change the state’s new vaccine registry from opt-out to opt-in, a move critics say will lead to fewer participants, thereby creating a less reliable public health database.
House Bill 1633 would make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory to attend school, including colleges and universities. House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 1455, which would prohibit the state from enforcing federal vaccine mandates such as those on large employers, federal contractors, and health care workers.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, is taking a different approach to workplace COVID-19 vaccines with Senate Bill 319, which would require health insurance companies to offer a “wellness financial incentive” to employees who voluntarily get fully vaccinated.
House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican, would fund the state’s energy efficiency programs with incremental increases to the system benefits charge – the portion of your electric bill that pays for energy efficiency programs through NHSaves.
This plan would be a reversal of a recent decision by the Public Utilities Commission to cut funding for NHSaves, a ruling that has drawn opposition from environmental groups, advocates of clean energy, and the consumer advocate, and led to a lawsuit.
The plan would increase the program’s budget by an estimated $5 million to $10 million a year, according to a committee minority report written by Rep. Douglas Thomas, a Londonderry Republican, although others put the estimate lower.
Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, is putting forward a similar plan through Senate Bill 270, which includes four Republican co-sponsors.
The Senate will take up offshore wind with Senate Bill 151, which would get New Hampshire into the business of procuring that type of power. Watters has put forward two proposals, one aimed at getting New Hampshire a seat at the table when it comes to planning offshore wind development and the other adding evaluation criteria for power purchase agreements in the Gulf of Maine to New Hampshire law.
Among the education bills before lawmakers this week, one will likely take up the most oxygen in the room: House Bill 607. The bill would create a localized version of “education savings accounts,” the statewide, voucher-like program passed into law this year.
Under the legislation, school district voters would be able to opt into creating savings accounts that would allow parents to divert their local share of education funding to private school or home schooling.
The existing program allows parents in any school district to use the state’s share of public school education funds – typically around $4,600 per student per year – for private school tuition, textbooks, tutors, laptops, uniforms, learning materials, transportation, and standardized test entries.
The newly proposed program would allow parents in participating school districts to access the portion of school funding raised by local taxpayers – an amount varying town by town, from $5,000 to $20,000 per student – for the same expenses.
Republicans have hailed the legislation as a continuation of a reimagining of public education, centering the focus on passing public dollars directly to parents and not public schools.
Democrats say the program would pose a threat to public schools and could raise property taxes and exacerbate inequities between towns.
Expect a heated debate when the bill hits the floor.
Democrats, meanwhile, will press for House Bill 136 this week, which requires schools to update their software to allow students to choose to identify their gender as nonbinary. Republicans say the bill is unnecessary because schools can already create a nonbinary check box; Democrats argue it is needed to force all school districts to formally acknowledge their nonbinary students.
And the Senate is considering House Bill 349, which would remove the requirement that school nurses be certified by the State Board of Education.
Meanwhile, the rest of the 2021 session promises a packed docket for members of the House and Senate Education Committee related to what can and cannot be taught in classrooms. Months after passing legislation restricting certain teachings around gender and race in New Hampshire schools, some Republicans are racing to expand it – while Democrats seek its repeal.
House Bill 1313 would expand the restrictions – commonly referred to the “divisive concepts” law – to the state’s public universities and colleges.
And House Bill 1255 would install a new statutory section titled “Teachers’ Loyalty” that would prohibit school teachers from advocating “any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have introduced two bills attempting to abolish the existing teaching restrictions. And Democratic lawmakers have fielded a flood of bills seeking to pare back the state’s existing education savings account bill, add new oversight measures, or repeal it entirely.
The last session produced the state’s first abortion ban, prohibiting abortions after 24 weeks and mandating an ultrasound. It contains no exceptions for rape, incest, or non-viable fetuses and includes criminal penalties for providers who violate the law.
House Bill 1609 would add rape, incest, and fetal anomaly as exceptions to current law, while Senate Bill 399 would repeal the ban altogether.
Some abortion-related bills are unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk but, in a state where all bills are heard, they will generate an impassioned debate nonetheless.
That includes House Bill 1181, which would allow a person claiming to be the father of an unborn child to ask a court to stop an abortion without requiring a DNA test to prove his paternity. A test would be required only if the mother disputed the man’s claims – and only if the two were not married. For married persons, paternity would be assumed.
House Bill 1477 would institute a Texas-like ban on abortions after about six week; Sununu has said he supports the 24-week ban but not one as restrictive as this.
A two-thirds majority would be needed in both chambers to overturn Sununu’s veto of House Bill 98, which calls for moving the date of the state’s September primary election to the second Tuesday in August.
Proponents argue an earlier primary would level the playing field by giving new candidates more time to campaign against incumbents. They also say the change would give communities more time to process overseas ballots and members of the military more time to vote ahead of federal deadlines. In vetoing the bill, Sununu said an August date would fall while many Granite Staters are on vacation, thereby lowering voter turnout.
House Bill 144 would modify the absentee ballot application form to make it clearer for voters. It heads to the floor with a bipartisan and unanimous committee recommendation that it pass.
The newly redrawn voting maps of congressional, House, and county commissioner districts will be up for a vote before the House.
Critics have called the proposed congressional district maps from the Special House Committee on Redistricting an attempt to gerrymander the districts to make the 1st Congressional District friendlier to Republicans and the 2nd Congressional District more Democratic. Floor amendments could be introduced to further tweak the maps.
Drinking water will continue to be a big topic. The House is set to vote on House Bill 478, which would require Saint Gobain Performance Plastics to pay to install and maintain filtration systems for two wells in Merrimack that have been contaminated with PFAS, a toxic chemical that can be harmful to human health.
A current maintenance agreement between Merrimack and the company expires at the end of 2023, although treatment is expected to be necessary for longer. The bill will arrive on the House floor with a 14-7 recommendation from the Judiciary Committee that it be voted inexpedient to legislate.
House Bill 611 looks to abolish fluoridation in drinking water, a public health measure intended to prevent tooth decay that is currently in use by 10 public water systems. The Resources, Recreation and Development Committee was split 12-9 on a recommendation that it pass. Those in favor of the bill say topical use of fluoride is a better way to prevent cavities and gives parents more control, while those opposed argue fluoridation is a safe, effective, and cost-effective way to reduce tooth decay by 25 percent.
House Bill 172 would set state goals for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and create a climate action plan. The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee voted, 11-12, along party lines that it be voted inexpedient to legislate.
In the upcoming session, you can expect the debate over how the state should manage solid waste – one of last session’s most heated environmental debates centered on a proposed landfill in Dalton – to continue.
House Bill 1274 proposes a study committee to look at solid waste practices of state agencies, and House Bill 1420 prohibits the siting of new landfills in New Hampshire until the state’s solid waste plan is updated.
The creation of a bottle bill will also be up for debate. New Hampshire is currently the only New England state without such legislation.
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