The Bulletin Board

Senate OKs earlier state primary date, limits on governor’s emergency powers, PFAS protections

By: - May 27, 2021 3:12 pm
A view of the NH Senate chamber

Nearly 3,000 people registered opposition to the bill on the Legislature’s website.  (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In a Senate session on Thursday, lawmakers approved proposals to move the primary from September to August, limit the governor’s emergency powers, and increase PFAS protections and funding. As senators approach the end of the session, they are up against a June 3 deadline to act on all pending legislation.

Election law

Two election law proposals advanced on Thursday.

The Senate’s version of House Bill 98 would move the state primary election from the second Tuesday in September to the second Tuesday in August. The proposal had bipartisan support, with both Republican Sen. Regina Birdsell and Democratic Sen. Donna Soucy speaking in support.

Birdsell said the committee agreed that the current date doesn’t allow a candidate enough time to switch gears from a contested primary race to the general election. The proposed date would give them more time to raise funds and would solve a potential time crunch in delivering absentee ballots overseas.

“We have come precipitously close to not being able to comply with the deadlines,” Soucy said of the overseas ballots, especially for those in the military. She called the proposal “a reasonable compromise.”

The House version of the bill put forward a date in June, but some town clerks who also serve as tax collectors said this would be a conflict with their tax duties. Primaries in 46 other states are held earlier than September. If signed into law, the bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, after redistricting is completed.

Senators were divided on another election law proposal that would require the Attorney General’s Office to analyze information about who is requesting absentee ballots. An amendment replaced the entire House version of the bill, which was about public inspection of absentee ballot lists.

Democrats argued that the measure was unnecessary and that the bill was a solution in search of a problem. Soucy said the information in question can already be examined by officials at the state level.

“We all want accurate checklists,” she said. “This does nothing to further this.”

But Sen. James Gray, chair of the Senate Election Law Committee, argued that the measure was important. Reviewing absentee ballot information in the past, he had encountered privacy requirements that prevented a review he felt was sufficient, including the age of voters.

The 14-10 vote in favor of passing House Bill 291 fell along party lines. 

PFAS protections and remediation

The Senate passed two bills on Thursday about PFAS – so-called “forever chemicals” that bioaccumulate and have been linked to cancer and other health issues.

House Bill 271 sets the maximum contaminant levels for various types of PFAS: PFOAS at 12 parts per trillion, PFOS at 15 parts per trillion, and PFHxs at 11 parts per trillion. These limits are stricter than federal EPA guidelines of 70 parts per trillion, which environmentalists in the region have argued is too high a threshold given the devastating health impacts that have been linked to lower levels of PFAS exposure.

Sen. Jeb Bradley introduced an amendment adding language to the proposal to allow for federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to be deposited into the state PFAS remediation fund – an effort that had bipartisan support. Bradley called it a common-sense measure to help communities afford remediation projects that are likely to be costly. The amendment would also update the remediation fund, expanding it so that grants could also be issued, not just loan forgiveness.

More work may be done on the language of the bill in a committee of conference to make sure it’s clear that private well owners are also eligible to apply for funding.

“One of the gaps that we continue to address is how do we work with private well owners,” said Sen. Tom Sherman of Rye, a supporter of the amended bill, which passed on a voice vote.

A bill on the consent calendar, House Bill 236, doubled the current statute of limitations for PFAS-related injuries from three to six years. In the Senate committee hearing on the bill, lawmakers discussed the importance of allowing individuals more time to identify the impacts of toxic chemicals before pursuing a legal action. The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Suzanne Vail of Nashua, passed on the consent calendar without discussion.

Checks to governor’s emergency powers

The Senate unanimously passed its version of legislation to provide oversight of the governor’s powers during an emergency. 

House Bill 417 would automatically end a state of emergency after 30 days and modify the procedure for renewing it – requiring a majority vote in the House and the Senate to approve a renewal. If a state of emergency were to last beyond the initial 30-day period, emergency orders by the governor would be subject to approval in both bodies by majority vote.

An emergency could also be revoked if there was a majority vote to do so in both the House and the Senate. Sen. Sharon Carson said the bill intended to strike a balance between oversight and public safety during times of crisis.

“It will not affect the current state of emergency,” she said. The bill, if approved, would go into effect either 30 days after passage or after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends, whichever comes later.

Carson introduced an amendment that would require the governor to notify the Senate president and the speaker of the House about pending emergency orders. The amendment passed on a voice vote, and the bill passed unanimously. There will be a possibility of making additional changes to the proposal in a committee of conference.  

“There will be a sign-up list at my office for the committee of conference,” Senate President Chuck Morse joked.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also 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.