By Rep. MARJORIE PORTER, D-Hillsborough
A historic event will occur on June 11. For the first time since the Civil War, the New Hampshire House of Representatives will be meeting, not in the stately Representatives Hall in the State House, but off campus, at the Whittemore Center at UNH.
This is of course due to the pandemic that still holds us in its grip. The State House complex has been closed to everyone since the Ides of March. This put a serious damper on the Legislature’s work. The end of March is one of our busiest times.
It all comes down to deadlines. The legislature is bound by its many deadlines. Deadlines for when bills need to be filed. Deadlines for when bills need to be heard. Deadlines for when they need to be reported out, and deadlines for when they must be acted on by the full House.
Deadlines are set by House rules, and it takes a two-thirds vote of House membership to suspend the rules so the deadlines can be changed.
One of the biggest deadlines of all is Crossover Day. Falling this year on March 26, it marks the date when all House bills must be acted on and sent to the Senate, and vice-versa.
When we ended our marathon session on March 12/13, we had acted on almost all our bills, and they were ready to go “next door.” An incredible feat.
But almost all is not all. There were thirty or so “second committee bills” waiting in the wings for hearings and committee votes.
In one of the rare moments of bipartisan unity during the marathon session, the House did vote once to suspend the rules. Anticipating we may not be able to meet for a spell, we voted to allow the Speaker, with the approval of the minority leadership, to extend our bill action deadlines.
Enter the pandemic, and the Governor’s emergency orders, and all our work came to a screeching halt.
I never realized how much behind the scenes effort it takes to keep our two hundred plus year old institution running seamlessly. We are bound by laws and rules never made for times when physically meeting together was impossible, or when virtually meeting was.
It took a while, and a prodigious amount of work on the part of many to figure out how to get things up and at least partially running again. Remote meetings for committees were allowed under Emergency Order #12, but we needed a secure platform on which to run them. Staff needed to learn new technology. Systems needed to be altered. That, and more, required weeks of work.
We were finally able to get back to committee work in late April. All bills have now been heard, and had a committee vote, and are ready to bring to the full House for a vote.
The Governor’s emergency orders enabled committees to work remotely. But even his emergency powers cannot out-rule the NH Constitution, which mandates the members of the Legislature assemble in person.
And that brings us back to the historic June 11 session.
Reps Hall is large and stately, but it does have to seat 400 of us, whose average age is 62. To keep us all socially distanced and as safe as possible from the virus, finding a larger venue for us to use was mandatory. The Speaker looked at several; the Whittemore Center, and the helpful and accommodating people at UNH, fit the bill.
Finding the place was one thing; making sure all the details work is another altogether. So many details, so many more hours of work. Our staff is amazing. Pulling this off will be amazing.
Even in this surreal time, we can get our work done, the work the people of New Hampshire elected us to do. One would think there would be jubilation in the land!
But instead, all heck has broken loose. The minority is NOT happy, and they won’t agree to extend the deadlines. Instead of working, they are choosing to obstruct our work. What a mistake.
A lot of statements have been made that, to put it kindly, are simply “alternative facts.”
First, it was that minority leadership was not included in the planning. But I know what my eyes have seen, and my ears have heard. I sat in quite a few planning meetings when the Speaker took a call from the deputy minority leader or left to make a call to him. He was consulted.
Then it was, the evil Democrats are working secretly to sneak in an INCOME TAX!!!
Aw, come on guys. You know better. There was no income tax bill before, and it’s impossible to file a new bill now, without the two-thirds majority vote of the whole House. Besides, it’s an election year! Why would we DO that? Scare tactics.
Then it was, the committee chairs did not consult with the ranking Republican when making a list of priority bills, except that, well, yes they did. We have emails.
Now, it’s a quid pro quo. They will only extend the deadline if we agree to let them file a bill to halt the trigger on business taxes agreed upon in the compromise budget.
The bill may have merit, and we may support it in the future. But it really needs to be fully vetted by Ways and Means, the consequences grave if we get it wrong. We won’t even have final figures to see if the trigger is pulled until December.
There will be time in January to do the work. We don’t have it now.
There was another “never since the Civil War” New Hampshire legislative milestone that happened in the recent past. In 2006, for the first time since the 1870s, Democrats won a majority in the New Hampshire House. And in the fourteen years since, Democrats have held the majority for eight of them.
The majority calls the shots. I think my colleagues from across the aisle are having a hard time with that. Their leader, in his “unity speech” on Organization Day, let us all know electing a Democratic majority was a mistake, a grave injustice, and he would be working hard to make sure it never happened again. Not the words of someone willing to make nice.
There was a phrase I heard often in my first term in the House, when Bill O’Brien was the Speaker and minority leadership was never consulted in any decision making. “Elections have consequences.”
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