By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
Every two-year term of the Legislature begins with high aspirations, enthusiasm and significant goals.
But 18 months later reality sets in as the meat-grinding legislative process generates compromise, reduced expectations and failures.
After a Blue Wave swept New Hampshire in the 2018 elections producing a Democratically controlled House and Senate, and Executive Council, Democrats had great expectations to address many of the social issues and health needs they believed had been underfunded for the past few terms under Republican control despite an abundance of state revenue.
Education funding, the mental health system, Medicaid reimbursement rates, the opioid crisis, paid medical and family leave, children’s protection and services, drug prices, and a new secure psychiatric unit were some of their objectives for the next two years.
The Democrats managed to increase state local school aid the most in over 20 years, began rebuilding the mental health system and planned to build a new secure psychiatric unit, increased Medicaid reimbursement rates, and passed a paid family and medical leave act, to have Gov. Chris Sununu veto it along with the budget package that included the increased spending on social and medical services, and education.
Those were three of the record 57 vetoes Sununu issued in the first term of the 2019-2020 legislature.
The next highest number of vetoes for a governor in modern times was 15 from Democratic Gov. John Lynch during the 2012 legislative session when Republicans had veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.
Other bills Sununu vetoed were an independent redistricting commission, additional background checks and waiting periods before purchasing a firearm, a number of election and voting bills, net metering and energy efficiency, worker and union protection bills, rate increases for Medicaid providers, increasing the minimum wage, and repealing the death penalty, which was one of two vetoes overridden. The other concerned medical marijuana.
While some were expected like the minimum wage and increased gun restrictions, some were not and many bills had Republican sponsors.
What incensed Democrats, however, was not so much his veto of the paid family and medical leave bill, but auctioning off a signed copy of his veto message and the flag flying over the State House the day he vetoed the bill. The auction took place at a Republican county committee fundraiser.
Democrats learned the difficult lesson that divided government does not necessarily mean compromise is in order when a Republican governor wants to make a political point with the party faithful and his base.
The political reality was much of the Democrats’ agenda for the 2019 session was lying on the floor of the corner office in veto messages.
The vetoes also did not help the partisan divide, particularly in the House with Republicans bristling at being the minority.
The minority party once was the loyal opposition in a tradition dating back to England, opposing but working to influence legislation in doing the people’s business for the greater good.
That is not true anymore at least it has not been true in the House and sometimes in the Senate in the early stages of the 2019 session.
Republicans in the House were often just the opposition and certainly played that roll during the 2020 session.
This session the Democrats’ strategy was to send the governor most of the bills he vetoed last year, so he would veto them again in this an election year when more people are paying attention.
It was like the old Yankee sage Yogi Berra said: “It’s deja vu all over again,” as Democrats resubmitted bills on gun control, voting rights, an independent redistricting commission, net metering and energy efficiency, minimum wage among others.
But that strategy was disrupted — as was everything else — by the coronavirus pandemic.
When House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy suspended legislative work March 16, only seven bills had made it the governor’s desk and into law. The most important allowed school districts to continue collecting Medicaid reimbursements, and another extended the Education Funding Commission’s deadline for its final report.
This year’s paid family and medical leave bill, House Bill 712, cleared the House and Senate but was in the enrolling process when legislative action ceased in March. It has yet to make it to the governor’s desk and be vetoed.
The suspension left nearly 1,000 bills in limbo.
With a traditional June 30 deadline to end the session, there was not enough time for the House and Senate to do the due diligence to act on all the bills, so decisions had to be made on priorities.
That’s where the opposition became apparent and nearly ended the session with little to show for it.
To take a step back, the House partisanship intensified after seven Republican representatives were reprimanded for not attending or offering proof they attended sexual harassment prevention training required under House rules.
The session took a decided turn for the worse after the long afternoon into the evening of the reprimands and a week later a nearly all-night session ended on Friday, March 13 after several Republican House members slowed down the proceedings.
Before the House and Senate could meet again, the number of bills were pared down by committee to determine essential bills, but the House Republican leadership claimed they were not consulted and final decisions were made without them.
As a result, the Republican caucus decided not to agree to change the deadline for House action on bills, something that was necessary because the deadlines had passed by the time the House came back into session in June.
Without changing deadlines, bills would need a two-thirds majority to pass, which Democrats could not muster without GOP help.
Republicans’ refusal to change deadlines in effect killed all remaining House bills, as well as any approved Senate bills sent over to the House.
The GOP caucus offered a deal, pass a bill to stop business tax rates increases called for in the budget law passed the year before, but Democrats refused to bite saying that decision could not be made until December when the state audit is released.
The Senate however, left deadlines up to the Senate President so its committees, mostly in bipartisan agreement, put together omnibus packages of bills around themes like child protection, criminal justice reform, telemedicine, administrative changes, expanded broadband and addressing a number of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all of the two dozen omnibus bills had bipartisan support, but a majority did.
The key was the House only needed a simple majority to approve the Senate passed packages because they were on House bills.
Some of the omnibus bills will be vetoed if not most of them, but a few will make it past the governor.
If the Republican strategy was to protect Sununu from having to veto a lot of bills going into the fall election, which would make sense, with many popular with state residents, then it did not work out as planned.
However, you also have to ask what two years of Democratic control accomplished? Certainly, the sweeping agenda leadership announced at the beginning of the two-year term, did not come to fruition.
Much of this session’s accomplishments depends on what the governor decides to do. If he vetoes almost all of the bills passed last week, Democrats and Republican lawmakers have little to show for this year.
Sununu has been the face of the state’s fight against the coronavirus with his twice or thrice weekly press conferences and has good approval numbers.
But vetoing a lot of bills is not good going into a general election bound to turn out more moderate voters than a primary.
The jury is still out on the 2020 session, but the promises made 18 months ago are different from what transpired.
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 reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.