It’s been a busy week for state lawmakers: Here’s what was passed and what was tabled
House Speaker Sherman Packard leads the Jan. 6 House session at the Center of NH Expo in Manchester. (Screenshot from House livestream)
In vote after vote Thursday, the message was clear: House lawmakers wanted to get out of there.
Over a series of tabling motions, the New Hampshire House pushed off final votes on a number of bills, with House leadership citing a predicted snowstorm Friday and the need to shrink the planned three-day voting session to two days.
“We don’t want to make people drive in bad weather tomorrow,” said Deputy Speaker Steve Smith, a Charlestown Republican. “So it’s a safety concern.”
The tabling frenzy put dozens of the bills into legislative standby. Those bills can be voted on later, as long as more than 50 percent of the House votes to remove them from the table.
But while many of the tabling decisions were coordinated by House Republican leadership, some actions took leadership by surprise. Democrats banded together with some Republican members to disrupt a bill to create local education savings accounts, and a bill to prohibit private sector vaccine mandates.
Some bills moved forward with solely House Republican support. Others garnered bipartisan buy-in. Meanwhile, the Senate took on its own, smaller docket, passing a bill to give farmers more freedom to sell raw milk.
Here’s an overview of which bills passed – and those that are still in limbo.
New Hampshire is one of 10 states that doesn’t provide preventative dental benefits, like cleanings, to the 85,000 Granite State adults on Medicaid. Instead, the state covers only emergency care like tooth extractions.
The passage of House Bill 103 puts New Hampshire a bit closer to getting off that list.
The bill, which passed 225-127, would give the state Department of Health and Human Services $1.4 million to start providing benefits that have long had bipartisan support but never crossed the finish line over questions about the state’s portion of the bill. (The federal government covers half the cost of dental expenses for traditional Medicaid recipients and 90 percent of the cost for those on expanded Medicaid.)
Two Republican House members – Reps. Michael Sylvia of Belmont and Jim Kofalt of Wilton – spoke against the bill, calling it an entitlement with unknowable costs and too little accountability. Rep. Mark Pearson, a Hampstead Republican, pushed back on the characterization. The state, he said, would save money by paying for less-costly preventative care that could avoid more expensive emergency care.
He said the bill is not “a handout to the greedy, but a hand up for the truly needy.”
Banning the LGBTQ+ panic defense
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers passed a ban on the use of the “LGBTQ+ panic defense” – prohibiting courts from accepting a defendent using a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense for manslaughter.
“Around the country this discriminatory ‘gay panic’ defense has been used successfully to excuse the murders of LGBTQ+ community,” said Rep. Casey Conley, a Dover Democrat. “… Our state values personal freedom and our state ranks very high in protecting LGBTQ+ rights.”
The bill passed, 223-118.
Restrictions on the governor’s emergency powers
The libertarian faction of the House notched a win with the passage of House Bill 275, which would limit the governor’s use of state of emergency, voting 190-165. The bill would give the governor the ability to declare a 21-day state of emergency, and then to extend that in 21-day increments three more times, giving the governor a total of 84 days to pass emergency orders. After that threshold, the Legislature would have to step in to approve the continuation.
The bill would also allow the Legislature to meet to strike down individual emergency orders passed by the governor. Supporters said that it would provide necessary power to the Legislature; opponents noted that lawmakers could already convene and vote by concurrent resolution to override a gubernatorial state of emergency.
A check on checkpoints
House lawmakers voted to pass House Bill 579, requiring that local and state law enforcement agencies inform the public whenever U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents tell them they are setting up an immigration checkpoint in the state. The bill, which passed 254-85, comes after the federal department, during the Trump administration, set up a series of surprise checkpoints along Interstate 93 in Woodstock.
The House passed a bill repealing the existing ban on voters and observers wearing campaign paraphernalia inside polling places, an effort Republicans said was necessary for free speech. That bill, House Bill 87, passed 186-164, over the objections of Democrats who argued it would lead to intimidation at the polls.
And in an expected result, the House voted to legalize marijuana, passing the bill 241-113 – a veto-proof majority should the bill reach Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. The bill would legalize six homegrown plants, as well as possession of cannabis up to three-quarters of an ounce. The vote came a day after the House narrowly failed to override a veto by Sununu of a bill that would let medical marijuana dispensaries register as for-profit entities rather than nonprofit organizations to better help themselves financially.
Wins for Democrats
In other votes Thursday, Democrats managed to score unexpected victories. Joining a handful of Republicans, the Democrats tabled House Bill 607 – a temporary blow to a new effort by the school choice movement.
The bill would create local “education savings accounts,” a mechanism that would allow participating school districts to let parents remove their children from public school and divert local education dollars to their childrens’ private and homeschooling costs.
Republicans had been promoting the bill as a way to build on a bill passed this year to create “education freedom accounts,” which allow parents in any school district to access the state’s share of per-child public school funding to use toward private or homeschooling costs.
But Democrats argue that the bill could saddle property taxpayers with expenses, even if school districts would have to vote in the program, and they managed to. The bill was tabled, 187-170.
Also tabled was House Bill 255, a bill seeking to prohibit private employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated.
As introduced, the bill would have protected colleges and universities and businesses from liability if someone claimed to have been exposed to COVID-19 while on their property. A series of amendments sought to drop the liability protection and instead prohibit governments, schools, hospitals, and public and private organizations from mandating employees be vaccinated.
If the bill returns to the House floor, expect a debate over liberty and whether vaccination rights belong to the individual or the entity they work for.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican, supported the motion to table, which passed 213-142, citing those competing interests but added that he considers vaccine mandates “counterproductive to our economy and way of life.”
An attempt to scale back mandatory ultrasounds in the state’s new 24-week abortion ban, a move Gov. Chris Sununu said he supports, stalled on the House floor, too.
Representatives voted, 325-23, to table House Bill 622 over last-minute questions from Republican leadership about a House committee’s September amendment to the bill.
The original bill called for criminal penalties against doctors who perform abortions after “viability” of the fetus; the amendment replaced that with an elimination of the ultrasound requirement.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, said later in the day he did not see the amendment until recently and didn’t believe it was germane to the bill. Deputy Speaker Steve Smith made the motion to table it.
Following the vote, the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat, accused Packard of pulling a stunt.
“The speaker clearly realized he would lose an honest debate and vote and chose this unprecedented abuse of power to get his way,” she said in a statement. “Manipulating the process to prevent debate on such an invasive mandate is shameful and telling. Because of this action, women in New Hampshire will remain forced to undergo a procedure that is not medically necessary at the dictation of Republican legislators, not doctors.”
The tabled bills are not gone forever, but Republican lawmakers looking to resuscitate them have the calendar to consider. After March 31 – known as “Crossover Day” – it will take a two-thirds vote in the House to take them off the table; before that date, it will take only a simple majority. Democrats are hoping to keep attendance numbers high enough to keep the bills on the table until that higher threshold.
In the Senate, a bill to update the absentee voter ballot envelope passed on the consent calendar. The absentee ballot envelope already includes a line for voters to sign; House Bill 292 as amended adds a line for the voter to print their name so that clerks can process absentee ballots more easily.
The Senate passed House Bill 95, which would allow farmers to sell certain raw-milk products without a special license. The bill would allow for the small-scale sale of products like yogurt, cream, butter, ice cream, and frozen yogurt, when the products are a direct sale at a farm, farm stand, or farmer’s market. The bill would exempt only small operations, which process or sell less than 20 gallons of raw milk per day. Raw milk products have to be labeled as such, and they need to contain a warning that “consuming raw milk may increase your risk of food-borne illness,” according to the bill.
And House Bill 293 – which would make it easier for would-be adoptive parents to waive a home assessment – passed the Senate in a 19-5 vote. The bill would decrease the amount of time that a child would have to live with the prospective parent before they could request such a waiver from 3 years down to 2, and it would be expanded to include children whose parents had died or if parental rights had been terminated. Republican supporters of the bill said the measure would remove a costly and time-intensive burden to adoption, while still giving courts the final say as to whether an assessment is necessary.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, opposed the bill, speaking from personal experience as the parent of an adopted child. “I went through the home study as was requested in those days. It was a rigorous situation, but it was a worthwhile situation because it really gave credence to those who wanted to adopt and made sure they were prepared to adopt,” he said. He said investigation is still needed if a child has been living with relatives for a few years and spoke against removing what he called a “proper safeguard.”
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