By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The partisan divide in the New Hampshire House was evident Wednesday on its rules committee in deciding whether to allow late bills but did come together over stale beer.
Amid charges of obstruction and lack of communications, two partisan votes allowed the introduction of a constitutional amendment on remote House sessions but denied a bill to block an anticipated business tax rate increase Jan. 1.
Another request to change House rules to allow for future sessions to go forward through the end of the month was also decided on a partisan 5-4 vote.
At a caucus yesterday, Republicans voted to oppose the rule change.
If the partisan divide is not resolved before next week’s House and Senate sessions, legislative work this year would essentially end with no further action.
The rules changes are needed or every bill will need a two-thirds majority to pass, killing most remaining bills.
After the House Rules Committee meeting Wednesday, House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, accused Republicans of obstruction and said they are trying to hold the legislature up for business tax cuts for large corporations.
“Two things are clear today — Republicans have no interest in an efficient and responsive government and are trying to use further tax cuts for large business as a quid pro quo for allowing the House to finish its work,” Ley said. “We understand that businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and are working to determine the most effective ways to help our small businesses rebound and return to full strength.”
House Minority Leader and Rules Committee member Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, said his caucus does not want to obstruct the House’s work, but wants bipartisan cooperation in setting the agenda for the remainder of the session.
“We are not here to obstruct, and we agree that the people’s work needs to be addressed,” Hinch said after the meeting. “But we are here to ensure the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, the spirit of the rule the House adopted in March, is not pushed aside during this pandemic.”
He claimed again there has been little communication between the speaker’s office and House Republicans.
“There has been very little attempt to seek Republican input,” Hinch said, “and I see this (rule change) as an end around this.”
Ley disputed Hinch’s contentions there was little or no communications between the Democratic leadership and Republicans saying there were weekly conversations and a number of House committees included Republican members’ priorities in recommendations on important bills to address in a shortened session,
The rules changes would set deadlines for acting on remaining House bills June 11, for acting on Senate bills June 25 and for agreeing to Senate changes in House bills June 30.
There would be no conference committees to work out differences between House and Senate bill by agreement with Senate President, said House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff.
Hinch and other Republicans said the timeframe is too compact especially with remote committee meetings.
The rule change to end the session by June 30 passed on a 5-4 partisan vote.
A 6-4 partisan vote denied Hinch’s request for a late bill to block expected business tax rate increases that would go into effect Jan. 1 as part of the compromise budget agreement between Gov. Chris Sununu and Democratic leaders after the budget was vetoed.
The provision would increase business tax rates to 2018 levels if business tax revenues fall 6 percent or more below the revenue plan, which is likely this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown.
Hinch said the change is needed to help small business that have been hurt by the economic shutdown and are struggling to survive and keep people working.
“My message is that we cannot wait. Our businesses cannot wait. The rate is scheduled to change on Jan. 1, well before legislation could be fast-tracked through the House and Senate. Businesses are making decisions now and will be through the rest of this year based on the prospect of that rate change,” Hinch said. “This affects their hiring decisions this year. This affects their ability to purchase capital equipment this year. To ask businesses to ‘wait and see’ if the legislature does something in seven months doesn’t make sense.”
But Democrats said the trigger to change the rate is tied to the state comprehensive financial audit which will not be completed until December.
“The trigger has been in the budget since it passed in September. We were all aware of the trigger and how it works,” said House Finance Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord. “At this point we do not have the kind of information we need to make this kind of decision.”
The change would have a major impact on the budget next year and beyond, Democrats noted.
Committee member and inn owner Rep. Ed Butler, D-Hart’s Location, said the change in the business tax rates would not be the deciding factor if a business survives or not.
“The impact of this tax will be minimal if felt at all by my business or other small businesses,” he said. “Having the information necessary to understand the impact is critically important.”
Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, said many large corporations are doing better than they ever have due to the pandemic and suggested lawmakers ought to determine who benefits most from blocking the rate increase.
After the vote, Hinch said the Democrats’ action will slow the state’s economic rebound.
“By rejecting this proposal, Democrats may have decreased our economy’s ability to bounce back quickly and prolonged the time it will take for our small businesses to recover,” Hinch said.
He said he intends to introduce his proposal at the June 11 session at the Whittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
Also, on a partisan vote, the Rules Committee voted 6-4 to allow Shurtleff to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the House to meet remotely in times of emergencies.
Under the constitution, the House has to meet in the State House in Representative’s Hall, with an exception passed after Pearl Harbor for a national emergency when the nation is at war.
Shurtleff’s proposed amendment would remove the “at war” and allow remote sessions during a national or state emergency declaration.
Noting the importance of the health and welfare of members of the New Hampshire House, Shurtleff said there needs to be a mechanism to allow the House to meet remotely in different locations.
Hinch said he understands the genesis of the change, but said he believes any change in the constitution requires thoughtful vetting, and there will not be time for that.
He and the other Republicans on the committee voted against allowing the proposed constitutional amendment to be introduced.
A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote of the House and the Senate and a two-thirds majority of voters at the next general election.
Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy suspended legislative work in mid-March and closed the State House and Legislative Office Building due to the coronavirus’ spread throughout New Hampshire.
The Rules Committee did reach bipartisan agreement on a proposal from Rep. Andy Prout, R-Hudson, to allow restaurants and bars to sell their keg beer in growlers during a state of emergency like the one declared for the coronavirus.
He said many restaurants and bars lost money when they had to destroy their keg beer that went stale while they were shut down under Sununu’s stay-at-home order which closed all restaurants and bars, except for take-out.
Sununu modified his order to allow the sale of beer and wine in bottles or cans, but not growlers as Prout proposes.
The committee voted 10-0 to allow the proposed bill to be drafted and introduced at next week’s session.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org