In a new legislative session, everything old is new
What to watch for in 2023
The issues will look familiar this legislative session, but the outcomes may not with a new House that's nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated on Jan. 3 at 9:05 a.m. to correct the party affiliation of Rep. Michael Cahill of Newmarket.
It’s a new legislative year and a new Legislature, and once again New Hampshire’s lawmakers have carved out a daunting workload. The House and Senate will take up more than 800 unique bills this year.
Lawmakers are likely to spar over many of the same topics they have in the past two years, from abortion rights to energy diversification to banned teaching topics. But with a Republican Senate, a Republican Speaker, and a near-evenly divided House, there could be some legislative surprises this year.
Of the 424 members of the House and Senate, just 216 are responsible for the more than 800 pieces of legislation; Republican lawmakers sponsored about 100 more bills than Democrats did, records show. Here are some of the major topics to watch.
Energy is likely to be top of mind for many lawmakers, as electricity and home heating costs remain high this winter. A Republican bill looks at phasing out the state’s renewable portfolio standard, the major state policy encouraging renewable energy. The Site Evaluation Committee – which gets a say in whether big energy infrastructure projects move forward – is the subject of additional legislation that seeks to do away with the committee in its current form and shift its responsibilities to the Public Utilities Commission.
Lawmakers will take up net metering again – another policy encouraging renewable energy by crediting those who generate it and contribute it to the grid. A range of bills look at everything from how small hydroelectric generators participate in net metering to another attempt to raise the cap from one to five megawatts for businesses and individuals.
Democrats are again looking at legislation to establish state goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and establishing a climate action plan. But if last year’s any indication, passing that will be an uphill battle. New Hampshire is the only state in New England without such a goal in its state law.
PFAS, or the so-called forever chemicals, will continue to be a major issue and the topic of a variety of bills this session, including a bipartisan effort to establish funding for investigation, testing, and monitoring the contaminant. Another Democratic proposal would create a state health registry related to PFAS, after the state found elevated rates of a certain type of cancer in communities last year.
And lawmakers will again look at the issue of landfill siting, by attempting to update the permitting process in the wake of the controversy over the proposal to site a new landfill in the North Country.
Of the bills addressing voting law, a few will look familiar – among them a Republican effort to change the state’s primary, which is one of the latest in the country. Efforts to move the primary to an earlier date last session failed after a veto from Gov. Chris Sununu. Expect Republican efforts to tighten requirements for voting: One Republican bill takes aim at out-of-state students’ right to vote in New Hampshire. Another looks to eliminate voter ID exceptions. Right now, voters can sign an affidavit attesting to their identity if they forget their ID. Republicans chipped away at that last session, passing a bill that instead makes first-time same-day registrants vote by so-called affidavit ballot, mailing in proof of their identity so their vote only counts if their ID is verified.
There are two bills that look at creating an election information portal, with one Republican and one Democratic proposal.
Lawmakers will take up at least nine bills related to abortion or reproductive health.
About half seek to repeal the state’s 24-week abortion ban or protect access to abortion care and birth control. One comes from Rep. Dan Wolf, a Newbury Republican, who sponsored legislation last session that created an exception to the ban for fatal fetal anomalies.
Wolf is now seeking to repeal the penalties against physicians who violate the abortion law, which include a prison sentence up to seven years and a fine up to $100,000. His bill will face a tough fight from anti-abortion groups that argue the law would be meaningless without consequence for providers who violate it.
Republican-backed bills would ban abortion earlier than 24 weeks, when a fetal heartbeat is detected, or require physicians to provide medical care to any child born alive. Elsewhere that effort has included requiring medical care for babies born alive during an abortion.
Rep. Dave Testerman, a Franklin Republican, sponsored a bill that would require a physician to receive a patient’s “informed consent” before providing an abortion. Nationally, that effort has included showing patients images of a fetus’s development throughout pregnancy and counseling patients on the potential psychological risks of terminating a pregnancy.
Right to Know
Both Democrats and Republicans are sponsoring bills related to the public’s access to governmental records or meetings.
One bill would institute a $15 hourly charge to look for, redact, and provide documents requested under the right-to-know law. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Cahill, a Newmarket Democrat, said he’s seeking to discourage overbroad requests intended to harass towns and school districts. A number of groups, from the ACLU of New Hampshire to the libertarian conservative group Americans for Prosperity, have vowed to fight the bill.
Cahill withdrew a second bill that would have limited right-to-know requests to New Hampshire residents.
Democrats are behind at least three bills addressing remote access to public meetings; one would require public meetings be recorded and broadcast live. Republicans have sponsored bills related to a public body’s non-public sessions.
House and Senate lawmakers are poised for familiar debates over how to fund schools, how much to expand “school choice” initiatives outside public schools, and what topics should be barred from instruction in schools.
Republicans are likely to push for the expansion of the Education Freedom Account program, which launched in 2021 and allows low-income parents to use public funds toward non-public education expenses. That expansion will likely come in the form of multiple bills to raise income caps for the program so more families can participate.
Republicans are also set to introduce legislation that would regulate the application of sex and gender in public schools; change laws around locker room and bathroom stall access; require teaching on the “nature and history” of communism in high school; increase per pupil state funding for charter schools; and allow the Department of Education to contract directly with school transportation services in addition to school districts.
And Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican and the vice chairman of the House Education Committee, will bring forward a bill related to “the dissemination of obscene material” by higher education institutions – a potential expansion of content regulation efforts from K-12 schools into colleges and universities.
Democrats, meanwhile, will return to efforts to either repeal the Education Freedom Account program or pare it back, by introducing bills requiring that it be run by the Department of Education instead of a private scholarship organization and that it be limited to a set budget. Democrats will also push to bar schools from using “seclusion” as a form of punishment; repeal the law banning certain concepts in public schools and public departments; and establish a “student bill of rights.”
New Hampshire’s shortage of affordable housing units has affected residents and businesses and drawn increased attention this year: House Speaker Sherman Packard created a special legislative committee to review housing-related bills.
This year, lawmakers of both parties are proposing bills to address that shortage. Democrats are reintroducing legislation to prohibit landlords from discriminating against potential tenants who receive Section 8 housing vouchers. Lawmakers in both parties are supporting laws to increase the number of permissible rental units in residential zones, as well as to create a state-issued “housing champion designation” for municipalities that speed up planning and zoning board approvals.
And Democratic Sen. Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka will introduce a “housing opportunities bill,” which would allow municipalities to pass ordinances requiring that all new housing construction include affordable units. The bill also enables towns and cities to create special “housing opportunity zones” in addition to commercial and residential zones, and offer local property tax credits to developers in those zones.
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