Senate Passes Controversial Voting Bills, Capital Budget and ‘Berlin Bill’

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Paula Tracy photo

Senators Lou D’Allesandro, Regina Birdsell and James Gray confer during Thursday's session.

By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org

CONCORD – The Senate passed several bills Thursday that proponents say will restore and expand voting rights while opponents say they could allow people to vote who don’t live in New Hampshire.

House Bill 105, which modifies the definition of domicile for voting purposes, modifies forms and procedures for voter registration and removes the requirement that the Secretary of State conduct post-election voter registration inquiries passed 14-10 on partisan lines.

Sen. David Starr, R-Franconia, said he firmly believes the right to vote in New Hampshire should be restricted to people who live in New Hampshire.

If you have license plates from another state, you should not be able to vote in New Hampshire, Starr said.

The bill reads “every inhabitant of the state, having a single established domicile for voting purposes, being a citizen of the United States, of the age provided for in Article 11 of Part First of the Constitution of New Hampshire, shall have a right at any meeting or election, to vote in the town, ward, or unincorporated place in which he or she is domiciled.”

Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said Democrats are creating confusion in the voting system by repealing a law that was passed less than two years ago and has yet to fully go into effect.

“The law we passed in 2017 was a common-sense piece of legislation that safeguarded our voting system from abuse and provided integrity in the system. Let me be clear, no one has been or will be denied their right to vote because of SB3. New Hampshire consistently has one of the top voter participation rates in the country and I am proud that we have supported common-sense laws that continue this trend,” Birdsell said.

House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, said, “Partisan legislation passed last year added deliberate complication to the voter registration process by requiring some voters to provide onerous documentation and complete new, lengthy forms upon registering to vote.

“In addition to new documentation requirements, 2018 legislation created a new, overly complex registration form for voters who register within 30 days of an election,” Ley said.

Gov. Chris Sununu’s spokesman said, “Governor Sununu opposes any attempt to undo the election integrity reforms he signed into law last year.”

Voter crosscheck pullout

The Senate passed HB 315 to pull New Hampshire out of the interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program 14 to 10.

Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, said: “As the first-in-the-nation primary state, with the eyes of the country upon us, ensuring that New Hampshire’s elections are fair and secure could not be more important. Unfortunately, our state is currently relying on a flawed program to maintain accurate voter rolls—the Interstate Crosscheck System, which has also stopped functioning since January of 2017.

“Since New Hampshire entered the program it has become apparent that the program is ineffective and vulnerable to nefarious outside actors, which is why it was shut down,” Levesque said.

About HB 315, Gov. Sununu’s spokesman said: “Governor Sununu agrees with Secretary of State in having concerns with this bill as amended, but will review the final language of the bill.”

HB 315 was amended by the Senate so the House will need to vote to concur or not.

Absentee ballots

The New Hampshire Senate voted 13-11 Thursday to pass HB 611, allowing voters to vote by absentee ballot without excuses. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concordprime sponsor of the legislation, released the following statement:

“The acceptable uses of absentee ballots under current New Hampshire law are overly strict and fail to cover situations like lack of safe transportation to the polls or uncertain wait times caused by busy polling locations. Allowing all eligible voters to access absentee ballots is not only fair, it ultimately increases involvement in the democratic process.”

About HB 611, Sununu’s spokeman said, “With one of the highest voting participation rates in the country, Governor Sununu believes New Hampshire’s current absentee ballot process works well.”

Credit histories

A bill that would prohibit employers from using credit history in employment decisions passed, but was vigorously opposed by Republican senators on Thursday. House Bill 293 was adopted 13-11.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, called the legislation an attack on business owners that could erode the state’s financial health.

He noted a number of Democratic-backed bills this legislative session are also part of a “death by a thousand cuts” that will drive businesses out of the state and reduce the state’s economic advantage.

Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said he was surprised that the bill is being used for “a bunch of Republican talking points. Let’s talk about the bill. Let’s talk about people who….get dinged on their credit score.”

Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said he was a victim of a bad credit score after expensive surgery but he fixed it.

He said as an employer, he should have an opportunity and an option to ask questions about credit history because “an employer has a right to ask about that,” Giuda said.

“It’s not a weapon,” he said. “And it is not a political talking point.”

Capital budget passes

On a more bipartisan note, the Senate voted 24-0 in support of House Bill 25-A, New Hampshire’s two-year capital budget.
 
The capital budget, as recommended by the committee, appropriates just under $125 million in general fund bonding, which is within the appropriate limit to sustain New Hampshire’s bond rating. 

The Senate additions include funding for public transit bus and facility matching funds, repairs to state-owned active railroad lines and bridges, matching funds to other railroads, Rye Harbor dredging, and rebuilding the access road at Berlin’s Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility.

It also funds a Nashua Community College engineering facility, fully funding the state share of the completion of the Rochester Career and Technical Education Center, and provides a plan to fully fund the Hudson CTE. 

It reestablishes the KEEP commitment to projects at the University System of New Hampshire for workforce development.

Senator David Watters, D-Dover, who chairs the Senate Capital Budget Committee, said he was pleased with the vote.

The measure, “helps New Hampshire maintain and enhance our infrastructure—including state-owned buildings, state facilities, and parks—while stimulating workforce development, private business growth, and economic opportunity,” Watters said.

Berlin development

The Senate passed HB 635-L, enabling a payment in lieu of taxes for a combined heat and power agricultural facility to promote economic growth in Berlin.

Sen. David Starr, R-Franconia, said, “I am pleased that the New Hampshire Senate has passed this legislation that will promote economic growth in Berlin.”

“The North Country needs jobs but high property tax rates make it difficult for new businesses to come here and create jobs for our citizens. A payment in lieu of taxes for combined heat and power agricultural facilities is mutually beneficial to these businesses and the communities where they are located. I am grateful for the Senate’s support for the bill and am looking forward to visiting the facility in the future,” Starr said.

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