Straight Talk: NH House Back in Session With New/Old Speaker

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New Hampshire State House

By Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough

The New Hampshire House was called back into session last week by our new-but-nonetheless-experienced Speaker, Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett). Chandler is not new to the job, having wielded the gavel for four years at the turn of the century. His term then ended under the dark cloud of an ethics violation. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge for failing to properly report campaign contributions, he chose not to run again for Speaker.

Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough

But that was then, and this is now. Rep. Chandler has always been pleasant to me, smiles nicely and says hello, and has even voted the same way I have on occasion. Although he faced stiff competition from other GOP members representing their many factions, he won handily in the second round of voting.  I cast both my votes for our Democratic leader, Rep. Steve Shurtleff.

Perhaps in an attempt to smooth the waters within his caucus, Speaker Chandler has greatly increased the membership of his leadership team. I noticed the difference right away when we got back into session last week. There was a lot more of the red and green handkerchief waving going on, as the new whips and floor leaders signaled to their caucus which color button should be pushed on their voting machines.

We certainly did have a lot of voting to do, so I’m sure the help was appreciated. It can be hard to keep everything straight.

House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-NH

Last year the House retained close to one hundred twenty bills, and all of them need to be voted on before we begin to take up this year’s eleven hundred. We were scheduled to meet twice last week, on Wednesday and Thursday, but the Bomb Cyclone proved too much for even the hardiest of Granite State representatives. We were back again this Tuesday, and still, we are not done. There are fourteen more to go, and we’ll be brought back to session by the call of the chair to finish up, whenever that may be.

There were significant wins and losses for members on both sides of the aisle in the votes we have taken. Sometimes we even put aside the party and voted together for things that are actually good for New Hampshire. Here is a breakdown of some of the more significant votes.

SB 193, the education voucher bill, passed the House on a vote of 184-162. This is the bill that uses our tax dollars to fund “education savings accounts (ESA),” which parents can spend to send their children to private, religious, or home schools. The constitutionality of this bill is in doubt. Although Part One, Article Six, of the NH Constitution is quite clear “… no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination,” bill supporters, many of whom are ardent strict constitutionalists, seem to just brush this aside as nonsense. Sending our tax money to a “scholarship-granting organization” who then gives it to parents who then give it to the schools solves the problem, they say. On session day these same supporters sported bright yellow “School Choice Week” scarves, which very much resembled the stole clergy members wear. Perhaps they were trying to drive home the point.

The precursor of SB 193 was the education tax credit bill which became law several years ago. It gives tax credits to businesses which contribute money to a scholarship fund, which can be used by parents as ESAs are, and could be used as predictor of how the SB 193 monies will be used. In 2016, 85% of students taking advantage of that program attended religious schools. And up to one third of those schools used a curriculum which teaches the earth is 6000 years old, and evolution is “just a theory.” I’m not sure this is the best use of our educational dollars, given our current push to increase the number of graduates pursuing STEM careers.

SB 193 now goes to the Finance Committee, and then back to the full house for a second vote. Perhaps the House will have a change of heart.

By a vote of 162-183, the House voted to overturn the recommendation to kill HB 656, relative to the legalization and regulation of marijuana, and voted 207-139, to pass the bill as amended. The bill now moves on to the Ways and Means Committee for further study. Don’t count your chickens just yet.

I’m pleased to say the House renewed its commitment to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), by voting 165-180 to overturn the committee recommendation of ought to pass on HB 592, a bill which aimed to pull us out of the program. We also overturned the committee recommendation to kill HB 559, which improved the use of the Energy Efficiency Fund by doubling the amount that can be used for energy efficiency projects for low-income, municipal, and school district projects. These funds come to us as a result of our involvement in RGGI; opponents wanted all the money to go back to ratepayers instead. For the average ratepayer, that rebate would be about $15/year. Both bills head to Finance next.

And our new/old Speaker was put in the unusual position of having to use his vote to break a tie, TWICE in one day. HB 587 and SB 224 are very similar bills which would ban the use of conversion therapy with children under the age of 18. This cruel and extreme form of therapy has been discredited by the American Psychological Association, among others. The Speaker’s vote killed HB 587 by a vote of166-165; and SB 224 with a vote of 170-169. News has it someone has called for reconsideration on these votes, so we will have another shot at them next time we meet.

In a big victory for working families in New Hampshire, HB 628, which establishes a family and medical leave insurance program, passed by a vote of 183-151. This voluntary program would allow participating employees to receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for themselves or another family member, or to welcome a new baby into the family. I have a lot more to say about this important bill, and it still has a long way to go through the process, but it’s a wonderful start. I’ll give you more details next time around.

Marjorie Porter is serving her fourth term in the NH House, representing the citizens of Antrim, Hillsborough, and Windsor. She currently sits on the election Law Committee. She has two grown children of whom she is extremely proud. A retired teacher, Marjorie lives in Hillsborough with her husband and three cats.

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