By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
Life is not a spectator sport, and civic involvement should not be either.
And the next six weeks are New Hampshire residents’ best opportunity to influence the state, its policies and priorities for the next two years.
There are many ways to “get involved,” writing letters, attending rallies, or sitting home with your computer.
Although COVID-19 still infects hundreds a day it gives citizens an opportunity they may not have again: witnessing the inner workings of their state government.
With an internet connection, Zoom or access to YouTube, you may watch House and Senate committee hearings as well as executive sessions, when decisions are made on what to do with bills, and House and Senate sessions, which have been available electronically for some time.
You don’t have to go to Concord, arrive early to find a place to sit, or wait for a caucus to finish before the action begins.
The chances of continuing the electronic access outside of the occasional public hearing on a major bill or the House and Senate sessions is not good after the pandemic ends.
See how to attend hearings and contact your lawmakers below.
The Senate has already indicated that is not going to happen once lawmakers return to the hallowed halls of the State House and Legislative Office Building.
The electronic access has allowed many more people to participate in their government with several public hearings drawing about 1,000 observers.
And people have the opportunity to sign in as supporting or opposing a bill, which is like a mini poll on the issue or a gauge of how well one side or the other is organized.
Crossover occurred earlier this month, so the stage is set for activists, advocates and ordinary folks to try to influence the final outcome.
This year is particularly ripe with controversial issues and actions.
Controversial simply means people disagree about it, usually vehemently, but that is how democracy works, finding middle ground or the way it once worked.
The state’s two-year operating budget package is the most significant legislation of any session because it determines the state’s direction and priorities for the next two fiscal years.
Gov. Chris Sununu and the House Republican leaders tout that this two-year proposal spends less general fund or state tax money than the last one, but it still spends more money overall than the current plan, mostly from federal funds, which is also tax money.
This budget package includes a number of issues not usually found there, such as a prohibition on teaching “divisive concepts” related to race or sex, including required training or in contracts.
Based on an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump, the provision has drawn criticism from a number of fronts such as the Business and Industry Association, educators, the American Civil Liberties Union and praise from others.
Another budget add-on would essentially end any state contract with Planned Parenthood. The action is tied to abortion.
Another provision would require legislative approval for any state of emergency beyond the initial 21-day period declared by the governor.
Also, the budget contains Sununu’s proposed merger of the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire, but not quite as presented.
The House did not set up a new board of trustees beginning in July as the governor wanted; instead, it established a commission to review the proposal.
This plan has drawn some criticism but many USNH and CCSNH communities have been strangely silent on the proposal from alumni to students and from faculty to parents.
Here’s your opportunity when Senate Finance works on its budget plan.
The House also removed Sununu’s proposal for a student loan forgiveness program, which he says does not cost one dime in taxes.
That is true, but it does significantly reduce a low-income student scholarship program. In essence the proposal pits those who have graduated from college against those about to or who are attending college.
Another opportunity for public input.
The House budget includes more than $70 million in back-of-the-budget, across-the-board reductions in the Department of Health and Human Services including the elimination of hundreds of positions.
Also in play is a new secure psychiatric unit planned for New Hampshire Hospital grounds although it is closer to Concord District Court than the hospital.
Tax reductions are in the budget including reducing the rates of business taxes, the rooms and meals tax and phasing out the interest and dividends tax.
And there are many other issues in the budget that people might want the Senate Finance Committee to know about before deciding its recommendation for the next two years.
One of the most controversial bills, actually two nearly identical bills, would establish what has been called “the broadest, most far-reaching and expensive” education voucher program in the country.
The “education freedom accounts” would allow parents to use what school districts receive in state adequacy aid for their students, and instead use the money to attend private, religious, or alternative schools as well as for homeschooling.
The public hearings on the bills before education committees in the House and Senate drew hundreds of people and lasted hours.
The House Education Committee decided the bill needed refining and retained it while the Senate voted down party lines to approve it and put the bill on the table to be considered for inclusion in the two-year budget plan.
If the Senate decides not to put in the voucher plan, the House will have another opportunity to consider it next year.
There are a number of other bills that target public education like allowing tuition money to pay for religious schools, changing the way student assessment results are released and sending state education aid to cities and towns and not to school districts.
For years the legislature has considered right-to-work bills. They have never become law, either because they were defeated in the House or Senate or the governor successfully vetoed them.
The Senate has already passed right-to-work down party lines and the House labor committee has voted to recommend the bill pass, but it has yet to come to the floor.
The bill, as many before it, would prohibit unions from collecting agency fees from non-union members for the cost of negotiations and contract administration. The bill prohibits employers from including agency fees in collective bargaining agreements.
With the House and Senate in GOP control and a supportive governor, advocates believe this is the best opportunity to approve right-to-work.
Many other hot button issues will be decided in the next six weeks, including:
Stand your ground expansion in several bills;
Prohibiting landfills within two miles of state parks;
Requiring children up to two years old to be in a rear-facing car seat;
Numerous bills on voting rights and elections;
Changing the date of the state primary;
And restricting the governor’s authority to spend and receive money during a state of emergency.
Now is the time to let your representatives and senators know what you want them to do before the committee of conferences begin to reconcile differences and negotiations go behind closed doors.
So be vigilant and if your representatives do not vote in your best interest, vote for someone else in 2022.
That is how to hold your elected officials accountable. If you do not like what they do, vote them out.
Find Your House Member Here: http://gencourt.state.nh.us/house/members/default.aspx
Find House Committee Dates and How To Attend Virtually Here: http://gencourt.state.nh.us/house/caljourns/calendars/2021/HC_21.pdf
Find Your Senator Here: http://gencourt.state.nh.us/Senate/members/senate_roster.aspx
Find Senate Committee Dates and How To Attend Virtually Here:
Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo,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 reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.