By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
“Summertime and the livin’ is easy.”
The George Gershwin tune from the Opera Porgy and Bess did not imagine a summer like 2020.
This summer continues what began almost since the Christmas present calendar was pinned to the wall six months ago.
The nation is locked in a battle with a silent, invisible virus that is deadly for old folks, those with pre-existing conditions, minorities and increasingly — although they know they are invincible — young people who are contracting the virus at an alarming rate.
As if this silent menace were not enough, we are in the midst of the strangest presidential election in our lifetime if not the country’s history.
The contenders have grappled with how to run a campaign in a pandemic as have down-ballot candidates. Shaking hands and kissing babies at county fairs is not acceptable behavior, and neither are large rallies or national conventions at this time.
In the Granite State, the legislature had a once-in-a-lifetime session that ended on the last day possible, June 30, in a most partisan manner, which again began nearly since the calendar changed two years ago.
Republicans just believe they have a God-given right to be the controlling party in New Hampshire no matter what the voters and the demographic trends say.
Despite the unsettling end to the Legislative session last month, almost everyone in the General Court, its staff, lobbyists and the press was glad to pause, relax and not think.
The only thing left for lawmakers to do this year, besides run for reelection, is to return this fall to try to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s vetoes.
For those with short memories, Sununu executed a record number of vetoes last year, 57, the closest in recent times, John Lynch’s 15 with the Bill O’Brien-led legislature in 2012.
Word around — can’t say State House anymore because it has been closed — the virtual hallways was Sununu did not want to veto that many bills this session and he almost had his wish until the Senate created a path around the obstruction House Republicans orchestrated. They opposed changing bill deadlines after work had been suspended for three months due to the virus effectively killing all remaining bills before the House.
This session, Sununu has vetoed four bills, three late Friday afternoon in a classic Friday evening news dump.
If you have been a journalist for a few years, you know if someone wants to dump bad news, do it Friday evening and leave town before the press release goes out.
And that is what happened late Friday afternoon.
One Sununu veto everyone knew was coming, was House Bill 712, paid family and medical leave. The governor and his fellow Republicans have consistently dubbed the plan an income tax although it is no different than an employer docking a paycheck for a worker’s share of health insurance.
The other two were not surprising, a housing protection bill — proposed by one of the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes — intended to protect renters and homeowners unable to pay their rent or mortgage now that the eviction and foreclosure moratorium has ended.
Many housing advocates predict “a perfect storm” of evictions and recent court filings for eviction notices tend to back up that contention.
The other bill would have allowed on-line voter registration, absentee voting for any reason, and eliminated several recent changes to voter requirements making it more difficult for college students to qualify to vote in the state.
Sununu called it a partisan wish list Democrats tried to sneak in under the cover of the pandemic.
Both those bills could be characterized as Democratic solutions to problems created by the coronavirus pandemic.
From the reactions to Sununu’s vetoes, you can understand why he may not want to veto a lot of bills.
Many proponents of the family leave bill said he was “callous and cruel” to veto family leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that was one of the more reserved comments on Twitter.
Another example of the Friday night news dump was President Trump commuting the 40-month prison sentence of his long-time advisor, Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying under oath five times, witness tampering and obstructing an official proceeding.
The timing for Sununu and Trump looked better before the president’s campaign decided to postpone his visit to Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth for a campaign rally Saturday night.
In New Hampshire, which Trump still hopes to win, the rally would have limited the vetoes and the commutation to one news cycle, Saturday morning, the day the fewest people read or watch news.
Now the stories are apt to have a little longer shelf life although weekends are useful for burying bad news in general.
Friday evening the press releases about the vetoes came fast and furious from both Democrats and Republicans.
Those releases had just stopped populating the email when another set of press releases came from the Senate office touting four bills Senate President Donna Soucy signed and sent to the Secretary of State’s Office, the last stop before they go to the governor.
Early next week there will be either vetoes or press releases about them.
One of the bills Sununu has already endorsed, House Bill 1266, temporarily changes voting laws for the fall elections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill contains the changes in law needed to implement the recommendations of the Secretary of State’s Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support.
The bill adds a box to the absentee ballot application for fear of COVID-19 exposure, allows a person to request absentee ballots for both the primary and general election with one application, and allows election officials to begin processing absentee ballots before election day, but not open or count the ballots until the final tally after the polls close.
The bill would make the changes only for the 2020 election, and then the current statutes would apply again.
The bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, not so much in the House, but Sununu noted he supported the bill in his veto message for the voting and election law omnibus bill Friday.
The other three bills probably will be vetoed.
One bill would increase worker protections against the coronavirus, allow fear of infection to be a reason not to return to work, eliminate the one-week wait to collect unemployment benefits, upgrade the Department of Employment Securities computer system and add about $50 million of CARES Act money to the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Another bill would expand net metering to include larger producers, encourage renewable energy and the resulting jobs, and discourage the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
And the final bill would transfer money intended for the “safe station” substance abuse program in Nashua to another entity to continue counseling services for those seeking treatment.
Once a bill reaches the governor’s desk, he has five days to decide to veto, sign or let the bill become law without his signature.
This timed release of four or five bills to the Secretary of State’s Office allows a prolonged drip, drip, drip of vetoes so although Sununu may not veto 57 bills this session —there aren’t that many bills left in the pipeline — it will appear he is veto happy again while voters pay more attention with elections approaching.
The veto watch will go on for some time.
The summer weather may be nicer, but the living is not going to be easier for a while.
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.