By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is usually reserved for family and friends as the work in Concord and Washington slows to a crawl.
In front of the State House the state Christmas tree will be dressed in colored lights, the Hall of Flags will smell like an evergreen forest from the many wreaths hung from the columns and Christmas carols will slyly sneak out of random offices bringing smiles to people walking past.
But the usual peace, quiet and good cheer will be hard to find in Washington with the U.S. House gearing for more impeachment work, terror attacks in Europe, the U.S. Senate strategizing how to best handle the all-but-certain impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, and a polarized country.
In Concord, election season for state offices is already underway. Two Democrats, Executive Councilor Andru Volinski and Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, are running for governor opening spots in safe Democratic districts for state Senate and Executive Council.
Long-time executive councilor and state senator Russell Prescott has already said he will not seek another term and that seat will be heavily contested.
All of the early jockeying adds to the feeling of transition that usually does not happen until late into the second-year session in Concord.
But this is not a typical year in many ways with a landmark general election looming in less than a year and the First-in-the-Nation presidential primary two months away and with a still-crowded Democratic field.
The highly partisan atmosphere in Concord shows little sign of changing as lawmakers approach the second year of the two-year term, which is always wrought with highly charged issues as both parties try to put the opposition on record in detrimental ways for the fall general election.
There will be no break from the Twitter Trolls, or the endless television and social media political ads from candidates, parties, organizations and Political Action Committees.
But legislative activity has slowed down in Concord and will nearly come to a halt after this week. That means a quiet period in the State House halls outside of administrative work like deciding the proper committee to hear each bill to be introduced next session and developing overall strategies to put either the majority or the minority in the best possible position going into the 2020 general election. And leaders will have to assure all lawmakers the next session will end by Memorial Day so Representatives and Senators running for re-election will have plenty of time to campaign.
While the Senate will decide this week on the last of the bills it voted to continue working on, the House deadline has passed.
A total of 156 bills were retained from the past session and have to be acted on during January. Many of the bills were “a little too hot” for last session which means they will be even more controversial, generally, when they come up again for a vote.
Among the `most controversial bills will be the “red flag law” concerning those at risk of harming themselves and others and the confiscation of firearms. This bill drew a crowd last fall and controversy over several criminal justice committee members wearing pearls, which proponents said was intended to mock them.
Another highly charged bill will be legalizing marijuana and taxing its sale, as will a bill requiring auto owners to have insurance.
Several tax issues will also be hotly contested including freezing business tax rates at earlier levels, a road usage fee to ensnare hybrid and electric vehicles and a registration fee for canoes and kayaks.
There are numerous bills on the state’s best response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision saying states may collect sales taxes from out-of-state business sales within their borders.
Plastics will also be controversial as two bills would allow municipalities to ban single-use plastic, and to enact ordinances restricting its use.
And lawmakers will again debate the work requirement under the Medicaid expansion program providing health insurance to low-income adults.
Some other issues that lawmakers passed as bills last session, but Gov. Chris
Sununu vetoed, will be back before the House and Senate in January including a
paid family and medical leave program, establishing an independent
redistricting commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries in light of
the 2020 census, and increasing the amount of electricity eligible for “net
All these bills will have to be acted on by the end of January in what is shaping up as a particularly busy month with long session days.
Lawmakers and others have been busy this summer and fall studying topics needing more attention before they decide the best course of action.
Commissions, which include outside experts and stakeholders as well as lawmakers, can deal with large issues such as solid waste or something simple like financing audio and video recordings of all legislative committee meetings.
One of the more complex issues being studied is the true cost of an adequate education and how best to pay for it. That commission has money allocated to hire an expert to dig into the issue that has plagued lawmakers since the state Supreme Court’s landmark Claremont education decision released nearly three decades ago.
That decision said every child has a right to an adequate education paid for by the state and a subsequent ruling said the existing funding system dependent on property taxes with widely varying rates was unconstitutional.
A bill to be introduced this session would extend the time for the committee needs to do its work.
Another study that originally intended to review what could be done to improve towns’ and cities’ ability to deal with their recyclables in a collapsing world market, became a solid waste study indicating New Hampshire was far behind its neighbors in dealing with its waste.
Several bills will be introduced in the upcoming session to address several recommendations by the commission including additional funding for the bureau of solid waste management.
The House budget included a dental care program for adults on Medicaid, but the Senate believed more work needed to be done to determine the cost of the added benefit.
So, a commission will look at the costs, services and the number of recipients who would use the new benefit now only available to children before beginning the program in the second half of the 2021 fiscal year.
Several commissions were established to review the state’s options under the federal Wayfair decision allowing states with sales taxes to collect the money from sales to their residents from out-of-state companies doing business electronically, i.e. taxing internet sales.
The previous legislature was ready to approve legislation trying to block the collection of sales taxes through New Hampshire companies, but could not agree on the proper direction and left it up to this legislature which believed even more study was needed before the state takes action.
For the second year, a commission was established to determine how New Hampshire will regulate “autonomous” or self-driving vehicles.
Two years ago, lawmakers sought to make New Hampshire a test site only to have Sununu veto the bill citing a fatal crash in Arizona involving a self-driving auto.
Representatives and Senators have filed requests to draft 1,100 new bills for the upcoming session.
The requests include changes to the state ethics law concerning conflicts of interest following the Legislative Ethics Committee’s recent ruling on a complaint filed against House Majority Leader Douglas Ley of Jaffrey, as well as changes to the state’s child protection laws.
Other bills would make it easier for charter schools to use old, closed public schools, and would address the need for workforce housing in light of skyrocketing home prices.
Other topics include alternative energy, voting, privacy and abandoned cars.
There will be something for everyone in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.
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 holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas.