By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Passing legislation is not rocket science.
Here in New Hampshire or any other legislative body, the process allows supporters, opponents, middle-of-the roaders and other lawmakers to participate.
Unlike many other legislatures, in New Hampshire every bill has a vote of the entire House or Senate.
Unlike Washington, D.C. or Massachusetts, powerful committee chairs cannot kill legislation by retaining the bill in committee so it never emerges for a House or Senate vote, much less a committee vote.
In New Hampshire, legislation is a democratic process.
Lawmakers were well aware of Gov. Chris Sununu’s objections to the budget bills as they went through the House and Senate.
The Senate made changes to appease the governor, dropping the capital gains tax, including a new secure psychiatric unit and lowering education funding aid for school districts.
In June the committee of conference went even further eliminating the paid family and medical leave program included in the budget.
In May Sununu vetoed Senate Bill 1, which was the family and medical leave act, the Senate’s and Democrat’s top priority.
The program was similar to a bipartisan bill during the 2018 session that Sununu vetoed, somewhat unexpectedly.
During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic candidate Molly Kelly made his veto one or her key issues knowing paid family and medical leave has broad support among state residents.
Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott proposed a two-state program for state workers but no legislation was ever introduced in the New Hampshire legislature.
Instead Sununu quickly labeled the Democrats’ plan an income tax because it assessed a .5 percent payroll tax. When he vetoed SB 1, he scrawled “No Income Tax. Not now. Not ever,” across the last line of the bill where his signature would have gone if he signed it.
A popular concept, paid leave was ripe for compromise this session, with the starting point the bill that had bipartisan support last session.
If Sununu had someone introduce his plan, the two sides could have likely found common ground, but instead Sununu and Republicans seized on the “income tax” to pound Democrats as the GOP tried to to gain political advantage.
If there was any doubt about the political strategy, a few weeks later he auctioned off a copy of his veto and the flag that flew over the State House on veto day, with supporters of the bill claiming Sununu was treating lawmaking as a game.
He responded later he was not out “to set a record, but the Democrats have passed so many extreme bills that I’ve been left with no choice.”
Most observers knew Sununu would veto about one-third of the bills he did, like those dealing with guns: a three-day waiting period, universal background checks, and clarifying gun-free school zones; reversing changes the GOP made to voting laws the last two sessions they call system integrity but Democrats call voter suppression; increasing the minimum wage, and eliminating the death penalty, which lawmakers have already overridden.
His vetoes of a subsidy for biomass, or wood-burning electric generators, and an increase in net metering were also expected as he vetoed similar bills last year. But he also vetoed several other energy bills including changes to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would have returned the program to its origin by removing a residential rebate and re-instituting an energy efficiency fund.
He also vetoed bills that would have changed the state’s renewable energy portfolio, expand efficiency programs through the systems benefits charge, establish a clean energy procurement commission and change qualifications for renewable energy certificates, all intended to increase the state’s renewable energy footprint and to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.
Another broad category of vetoed bills would be workers rights as opposed to business practices such as basing employment on a person’s credit rating or criminal background check and requiring employers to inform workers about organizational rights.
Another separate category of vetoed bills are political but not voting rights like greater accountability for Limited Liability Corporation donations, the definition of an advocacy group that would need to file with the Secretary of State and voter databases.
And then there was the veto of an independent redistricting commission I wrote about last week.
He also vetoed bills aimed at restoring local control over experiential education credits, removing restrictions on student testing passed the year before, and he vetoed bills changing the definition of wetlands and a dock registration program.
Many of the bills had Republican sponsors.
What puzzled many who have watched the legislative process in Concord was the governor’s office lack of involvement in most bills going through the legislature this session.
Sununu’s budget director Mac Zellem was at all House and Senate finance committee budget meetings, but little staff involvement on other bills.
His veto of 53 of the less than 400 bills passed this session represents about one in seven bills. The 53 vetoes are more than three times the number former Gov. John Lynch vetoed during one session of the 2011-2012 legislative session, 15, and almost double Lynch’s two session total of 28.
The session featured a veto proof GOP majority heavily influenced by the Tea Party movement.
Once a bill is introduced, it is assigned a committee for a public hearing and vetting. For example a bill changing drinking water standards would be assigned to the committee overseeing environmental issues.
A public hearing is scheduled and the bill’s sponsors testify to why the proposed legislation is needed, how it would accomplish its objectives and the consequences of not acting.
People, businesses or groups that would benefit from the bill also testify, including lobbyists who are to represent their clients before lawmakers.
Opponents are also expected at the hearings including individuals, businesses or organizations and groups that would be affected by the change in law as well as the ever-present lobbyists.
This process exposes the pros and cons of proposed changes in law or new law or repealing a law and the effects – good and bad – on the various populations, businesses or organizations.
The bill’s sponsors and committee members can work on changes to the bill to satisfy some but rarely all of the constituencies with an eye to garnering enough votes to pass first the committee and then the House or Senate.
And more and more these days partisanship is a consideration as the parties have positions to honor.
Compromise has to be achieved first where the bill was introduced and if it is successful, then it would go through the same process again before the other body.
Consequently a bill that passes the legislature is vetted and changed numerous times before it is finally approved and sent to the governor for the final up or down vote.
Governors’ offices employ staff to track bills and generally at various points along the process tell sponsors and committee leaders whether something might need to be changed in order to receive the governor’s blessing.
Lawmakers can take that advice, ignore it or try to reach a middle ground with the governor’s office before finally passing a bill.
The process requires communications between the House and Senate, and between the legislature and the governor.
A governor is a third of the equation, but an outsized one-third because when he or she vetoes a bill, a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate is needed to override the veto and make the bill law.
After many failed attempts, several years ago medical marijuana legislation was making its way through the House and Senate. The bill allowed patients and their caregivers to grow their own cannabis.
The bill was ready for a final vote in the Senate before then Gov. Maggie Hassan told key lawmakers she would veto it unless the home gown provision was removed.
Many bill sponsors were upset with the late entry and the police chief’s influence in her decision, but ultimately decided a medical marijuana program was more important than the home grow provision.
Since that time lawmakers have tried without success to add a home grow provision, including this session when Sununu vetoed House Bill 364 saying, “This bill would bypass those public health and safety guardrails and make the job of law enforcement significantly more difficult.”
The veto was one of 53 and counting Sununu made this session including the well-documented vetoes of House Bills 1 and 2, or the state’s operating budget package for the biennium that began July 1.
Several of Sununu’s vetoes are likely to be overridden; the biomass power plant subsidy and increasing the limit for net metering, but most of the rest will not.
That means a lot of work on many people’s part, both Democrat and Republican, businesses and private citizens, will be for naught.
And that is unfortunate when a little more communications could have led to different outcomes.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas.