By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House failed Wednesday to override any of the 17 vetoes before it on the final day of the 2019-2020 session held at Whittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
The House held three sessions at the hockey rink which provided adequate social distancing for lawmakers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The change in scenery did little to damper the partisan wrangling that characterized this session, even when the House leadership sought to send a question to the state Supreme Court whether it would violate the constitution to meet remotely instead of in Representatives Hall.
The Democratic leadership’s motion referred to a section of the state constitution concerning a quorum, while Republicans wanted to broaden the question to take in other sections.
Eventually Democrats prevailed sending its question to the court on a partisan 199-134 vote.
At the end of the session, supporters of President Trump tried to stop Rep. Wendy Thomas, D-Merrimack, from speaking as she criticized some of his actions in reacting to a fellow representative’s social media post questioning her patriotism.
The vote to allow her to continue speaking was 182-107 as she then told the House about the military experiences of her grandfather, father, step-father and her son.
“This Army mom supports veterans and wants to find the resources and services needed so they can become whole again,” Thomas said. “I honor my grandfather, my father, my step-father and my son by exercising my rights that they all fought to protect” she said to applause.
In between, legislators argued over some of the major legislation of the 2020 session from paid family and medical leave to expanding renewable energy.
Paid and Family Leave
The House failed to override one of the Democrats’ priorities the past two years, paid family and medical leave unable to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override Sununu’s veto.
Sununu and Republicans continue to claim it is really an income tax and that those paying the bill will never see the benefits, but Democrats contend it is an insurance policy disparately needed now with the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 450 people in the state and infected nearly 5,000.
“No one should have to choose between financial security and caring for a loved one. Access to paid leave is critical for people struggling with substance use disorder, parents welcoming a child into their home, and hardworking citizens across the state caring for aging parents,” and Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord. “I hope that voters see that even in the middle of a pandemic, with more Granite Staters facing economic insecurity, House Republicans voted to back up Gov. Sununu instead of their own constituents. If there was ever a time to put party aside and vote to support struggling workers, families, and businesses it would be now.”
But Republicans said Democrats failed to work with them or the governor to reach common ground on an acceptable plan.
“Republican concerns with this bill were clear from the start, we would not support a plan that’s likely to be insolvent, mandatory, and creates an income tax,” said House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack. “Rather than address our concerns, Democrats sent essentially the same bill to the governor’s desk two years in a row. They were never serious about getting anything passed, they were intent on playing politics. Voters will remember their repeated attempts at passing an income tax this November.”
The bill would provide 12 weeks of family or medical leave at 60 percent of salary.
Either the employer or employee would pay the .5 percent payroll tax, which supporters said would be about $5 a week.
Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, said that two-thirds of the state’s residents lack access to paid leave for a new baby to care for a family member or for his or her own health.
“This is an insurance program, not an income tax or a free vacation,” she said.
The House failed to reach the two-thirds majority on a 195-143 vote.
The House also failed to override the governor’s veto of House Bill 731 to increase the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $12 over the next three years, first increasing the minimum to $10 next year and then $12 in 2023.
Those seeking to sustain the governor’s veto said it would result in fewer hours for workers, reduction in overtime and layoffs.
Rep. Max Abramson, R-Seabrook, said the bill would put more people on welfare when the state is facing a $500 million budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic and bankrupt many small businesses.
But those seeking an override said working people deserve to earn a living wage instead of having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Grantham, said too many companies rely on the state to subsidize their low-wage workers.
“Before COVID-19 dramatically impacted the financial stability of people across New Hampshire and the country, people were already having a hard time making ends meet,” Sullivan said. “House Bill 731 was a compromise bill that addressed the governor’s concerns from last session by gradually increasing the minimum wage to $12 per hour in 2023.”
He said while the governor said it is the wrong time to increase the minimum wage, it is actually the right time to protect those front line workers who have had to work during the pandemic.
The House failed to reach a two-thirds majority on a 197-139 vote.
Supporters of House Bill 687 to establish an extreme protective order program intended to reduce suicides and mass killings again argued the bill would save lives and help families and friends aid loved ones through difficult times.
But opponents claimed the bill takes aim at constitutionally protected gun rights.
“This legislation aimed to provide a tool in preventing a tragedy like suicide when an individual shows signs of crisis,” said the prime sponsor, Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham. “Granite Staters deserve a legislature that will take bold action to prevent tragedy, not merely offer thoughts and prayers after it occurs.”
But opponents said the bill would allow someone’s firearms to be confiscated with only hearsay evidence.
“This bill would allow an angry relative or former boyfriend or girlfriend or a disgruntled neighbor to petition the court to hold an ex parte hearing and strip you of your second amendment rights,” said Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown. “You would only learn you are subject to an order when the police arrive to confiscate your guns.”
The bill would have established a civil procedure to remove firearms and ammunition from someone who is at risk of harming him or herself or others.
The legislation is similar to laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
The House failed to meet the two-thirds majority on a 182-156 vote.
The House also failed to override the governor’s veto of House Bill 1660, which would have established protective orders for senior citizens who are exploited, abused or neglected. Sununu said it would create confusion with domestic protective orders.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said the bill would protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“We have an obligation to protect those who cannot help themselves,” Cushing said. “If we can’t do that, what are we doing here?”
The override vote failed 191-142.
The House also failed to override Sununu’s veto of House Bill 1665, which would have established an independent redistricting commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries, done every 10 years.
Lawmakers would have to give final approval under the bill, but Sununu claims it violates the state constitution requiring lawmakers to redraw the boundaries.
Rep. Wayne Moynihan, D-Dummer, said while the governor maintains the current process works well and is fair, there habe been a litany of court cases over past redistricting plans from lawmakers and cities and towns.
But state Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, said the commission would not change that and each party would still be drawing their own plans.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said 80 percent of New Hampshire voters believe gerrymandering exists in New Hampshire and creates unfair districts.
“This gives the voters the power to decide who will represent them,” she said.
The override failed on a 198-135 vote.
The House also failed to override the governor’s veto of House Bill 1672, which would have allowed any voter to use absentee balloting without having to state a reason.
The bill would have also allowed citizens to register to vote on-line and would have ended the state’s participation in the defunct cross-checking program.
The override failed on a 191-141 vote.
Sununu also vetoed two bills that would allow renewable energy producers to sell their excess power to utilities.
Earlier this session, the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 159, which expands the upper limit on generators from 1 to 5 megawatts, allowing towns and other larger, small producers to participate. The House failed to override the veto on a 207-130 vote.
House Bill 466 would have increased the limit on net metering from 100 kilowatts to 125.
Supporters of both bills said they would allow New Hampshire to better participate in the renewable energy industry that is surging, instead of falling further and further behind its neighbors.
HB 466 failed on a 199-139 vote.
Sununu vetoed three bills lawmakers approved to address issues raised by the pandemic.
The bill that would have established a program using federal CARES Act money for long-term care facilities. A vast majority of the people killed by the virus in New Hampshire have been in long-term care facilities.
The bill would have also required the governor’s office to account for all of the CARES Act money dispensed in the state and established a scholarship program to train health-care workers.
House Bill 1246 failed on a 196-139 vote.
An omnibus bill, House Bill 1166, would have provided greater unemployment benefits, required employees to provide a safe, sanitary environment for returning workers, and personal protection equipment.
The House failed to override the veto on a 194-145 vote.
Supporters of House Bill 1247 said it was the least the state could do to protect homeowners and renters unable to pay housing costs due to the pandemic.
But opponents noted the governor already provided money and that many of the requirements are already in statute.
The bill sponsored by the governor’s Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, would have extended a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to allow renters and landlords, and homeowners and banks to rework payment plans.
The House failed to override the bill on a 196-139 vote.
Sununu vetoed House Bill 685 which would have required companies that provide prenatal and maternity health insurance coverage to also provide abortion coverage. The bill would have negated a federal rule change requiring insurance companies to do separate billing for abortion coverage.
Opponents said the bill could impact federal money coming to the state.
The House failed to override the veto on a 195-139 vote.
House Bill 1375 would have required companies producing toxic substances to medically monitor people who were exposed or at risk.
The bill was intended to address particularly producers of PFAs.
The House vote 191-138 fell short of the needed two-thirds majority.
Sununu also vetoed House Bill 250 that would have established an adult dental coverage program under Medicaid. The program currently covers children, but not adults.
The 194-146 vote fell short of the needed two-thirds majority.
Other vetoes sustained by the House were:
House Bill 1454, which would have allowed local school boards to determine graduation credits for learning outside the classroom.
The learn anywhere program would have been required to vet participating businesses as well.
The vote was 193-140
House Bill 1234 contained many changes in law requested by state agencies to make their work more efficient. The vote was 192-145.
House Bill 1494 would have provided a death benefit for families of public workers killed doing their jobs, required the state and other public employers to follow federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, and increased the time firefighters would have to claim workers’ compensation for heart and lung damage.
The vote was 202-133.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.