By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
This week the House will meet outside of Representatives Hall for the first time since the Civil War and next week the Senate will meet in Representatives Hall.
The historic changes allow lawmakers to adhere to social distancing recommendations to avoid coronavirus transmission.
The virus’s advance into the state disrupted the legislature’s 2020 session and compelled changes to the traditional operations of the General Court, some that may remain after the virus subsides.
The House meets Thursday at the Whittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus at 10 a.m. while the Senate meets next Tuesday in Concord at a time to be determined.
Representatives will be given staggered times to arrive at the center and will have their temperatures taken and asked screening questions before they park their cars. No word on who will have the privileged parking spaces.
All Representatives will be given a mask and plastic shield. Separate seating sections will hold representatives who cannot medically wear a mask, but can use a shield, and another for those who refuse to wear either. They will be separated from other lawmakers by a plastic barrier and have their own bathrooms.
The calendar for the day has 37 bills, 18 on the consent calendar which is routinely approved by a single vote because of unanimous committee support, and 19 on the regular calendar, which will be voted on one bill at a time.
Most of the bills are not ones that would turn out a crowd at the State House.
Probably the most controversial bill, although it was not a year ago, is Rep. Marjorie Smith’s bill to establish an independent redistricting commission to draw the state’s political boundaries in light of the 2020 census.
Last year the Durham Democrat’s bill passed the Election Law Committee unanimously, was revised by the Senate with bipartisan agreement, but was one of 53 vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.
This session, action on the bill has fallen down partisan lines.
Another bill that will draw a lot of attention is an omnibus net metering bill that combined several different proposals to reach a compromise, but that also has a partisan tone.
Other bill topics include drones, tobacco products, the state’s 10-year highway plan, affordable housing, waste reduction, facial recognition and mushroom harvesters.
But whether the House acts on the remaining House bills depends on whether the House leadership can reach a compromise with the Minority Leadership on rules to change deadlines that have long since passed while the session was on hold.
The partisan dust-up has been chronicled by the media for the past two weeks. The minority Republicans claim they have been left out of the planning process to determine legislative priorities and allege Democratic House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff has not communicated with the minority leadership.
Shurtleff labeled those claims “a preposterous and an outright lie.”
Without an agreement to change the deadline dates, every bill will require a two-thirds majority — as does the rule change – which Democrats do not have so it would essentially end the 2020 session where it stands today.
About the only action the House could take not needing a two-thirds majority is to agree or disagree with changes the Senate made to House bills.
The Senate will attempt to load up about a dozen bills with the contents of 30 or 40 other bills next week so that might be one way around changing the rules.
The Republican leadership attempted to trade support for the rule changes for Democrats’ support for Minority Leader Dick Hinch’s bill to block near certain increases in business tax rates.
As part of the budget compromise between Democratic leaders and Sununu after he vetoed the budget last year, a trigger was inserted that would increase business tax rates to calendar year 2018 levels if business tax revenues fall 6 percent or more below the budget’s revenue plan.
Rates decreased last year due to the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget law.
Blocking the rate increase was first suggested by Sununu who says raising the rates in this coronavirus infected economic climate would send the wrong message.
Sununu’s stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of coronavirus closed all non-essential businesses which has reduced state revenues the House Ways and Means Committee believes by $200 million to $600 million for the biennium.
The Democratic leadership did not bite on the GOP proposal saying there is no need for quick action. The rate changes are triggered by the state’s annual comprehensive financial audit which is released in December, they said.
And they argued most of the state’s small businesses would benefit little from blocking the increases, while large out-of-state corporations would realize large savings.
But tax rates are not the real issue, the real issue is who controls state government.
A blue wave in New Hampshire’s 2018 election put Democrats in control, with one exception, the governor’s office.
Democrats held on to both Congressional seats, and won majorities on the Executive Council, the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since 2006 to 2010.
The will of Granite State voters was clear.
But to date the Democrats have not been able to achieve much of their agenda during this two-year term.
President Trump often talks about attempted coups to overthrow the will of American voters in 2016 through the Mueller investigation, Trump’s impeachment and rumors of invoking the 25th amendment.
If that is true, Democrats in Washington should take a lesson from Republicans in New Hampshire.
The Republican coup began last session when Sununu vetoed 53 bills. The previous record for a single session was 15.
Usually governors try to influence legislation during the process, not wait until it passes the House and Senate and arrives at their desk to veto.
Some bills were not going to find any compromise like paid family and medical leave, and increasing the minimum wage, but many of the other bills had Republican sponsors and could have been salvaged.
To veto 53 bills says you want to send a message.
And if no agreement is reached to change the deadlines, essentially bringing the 2020 session to an end with nearly no action, the GOP will have blocked most of the Democratic agenda for the two years they control the Legislature.
While you have to admire the GOP’s well executed political strategy to neutralize the Democrats’ majority, the scorched-earth approach will produce lasting effects.
This session was always going to be difficult, but this strategy makes relations more difficult going forward if things aren’t poisoned enough now.
And more importantly, the danger of a coup in a democracy is it overthrows the will of the people. To maintain your power, you have to hope aggrieved voters have short memories when they vote again.
This may not be that year.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
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 reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.