Distant Dome: N.H. Legislature Changing State Policies and Philosophy

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


After this week, the only thing left for the legislature to do is come back and try to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s vetoes.

Given the partisanship of the last two years, any override is highly unlikely.

So far Sununu has issued only a couple of vetoes, although most of the bills where he has publicly indicated his concern have yet to arrive at his desk.

The last two years have been typical of the New Hampshire legislature in recent decades swinging from one political spectrum to 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

That would be more apparent if Sununu had not vetoed a record number of bills during the last two-year term when Democrats controlled the House and Senate and the Executive Council, all of which are now in Republican hands.

This legislative term produced major policy shifts even from past Republican-controlled legislatures as well as changes to the philosophy of state government’s role in our lives.

Things once the purview of local control or personal decisions have been gathered under the state government’s umbrella.

The two-year budget passed last year contained major changes in state policies not seen in decades. Budgets always contain some policy changes that should require separate legislation, but not to the extent the current budget package did.


GOP lawmakers have tried for years to institute an education voucher program but were successful with only a limited business tax credit scholarship program.

Several sessions ago, a similar education freedom account bill made it through the Senate but failed after opposition came out in force in the House.

Last year it looked like that might be the case again as the House sent its version of the education freedom account legislation to interim study after changing the bill to put some guardrails on the program while realizing more work was needed to make it palatable for a majority.

The Senate made the changes the House proposed to its version and then put it in the budget package where it remained when the House and Senate approved the two-year operating budget down party lines.

The New Hampshire program has been called the most expansive in the country and lawmakers soon found out how expansive when the price tag — a projected $290,000 — ballooned to $9 million and counting.

And most of the money did not go to students leaving public schools for more appropriate educational settings, but to students already in private schools  — mostly religious — and home schooling programs.

That is money the state was not spending on public education until this year and it comes from the Education Trust Fund which pays for adequacy grants for public schools and per student grants for charter schools.

The program also allows public money to be spent on specific religious curriculum through qualified vendors selling religious materials to parents.

The New Hampshire constitution forbids spending public money on religious advocacy, while the US Supreme Court decisions cited by program proponents addressed the Blaine amendment in many state’s constitutions, including New Hampshire’s.

Attempts to rein in the program this year were voted down, usually along party lines.

The budget package also contained a reworking of what was called the divisive concepts bill but was placed under the state’s discrimination laws.

Despite the change, several lawsuits have been filled over the provision. Attempts to expand the provision’s reach to higher education and to expand the state’s reach into public education curriculum failed this session.

The original bill was based on an executive order from former President Donald Trump, and Sununu vowed to veto it. But when he had to decide on the budget package, he said the budget was too important and signed it all into law.


The New Hampshire legislature has always beaten back attempts to limit reproductive and abortion rights with the exception of parental notification which contains a judicial bypass.

Like education freedom accounts, abortion restrictions did not have to stand on their own and instead were folded into the budget package.

The state’s first ever abortion ban prohibits the procedure after the 23rd week of a pregnancy with the only exception the life of the mother. The lawmakers also decided to criminalize health care providers who perform abortions after that period and require invasive ultrasounds for any stage abortion.

The law was changed this year to add an exception for fatal fetal anomalies and clarified the ultrasound requirement is for abortions near the 23rd-week mark.

The change did not include exceptions for rape and incest as many had sought.

This year the Senate either killed or sent to interim study other abortion restrictions passed by the House.

The Republican-controlled legislature refused to put into state law the constitutional rights under the federal Roe versus Wade decision, which is expected to be overturned by the current US Supreme Court.

Local Control

New Hampshire is not a local control state, where anything the government does not regulate or oversee can be regulated or overseen by local government. There have been attempts to change the law, but advocates gave up knowing the legislature was not about to turn over some of its authority to cities and towns.

But traditionally there have been areas of local control that the state government has not sought to wade into like zoning and planning, and school curriculum, and local health issues.

And the government has never tried to manage the nitty gritty of private businesses or organizations, like they have the past two years.

Much of the local control issue has to do with the COVID pandemic and strategies to blunt its spread or protect the most vulnerable citizens.

But the outlook changed with the current legislature.

Not only did the legislature begin reaching into the curriculum taught at public schools, it also decided local school officials could not impose mask mandates on students, faculty and staff.

They passed bills prohibiting public entities from banning and not hiring someone not vaccinated against COVID and tried to expand that to public health facilities and private businesses.

Much of what was attempted did not succeed, but some of it did, putting the state and some health organizations like hospitals at risk of losing significant federal money.

Medical freedom is the battle cry, although a vast majority of the state’s people are vaccinated.

Bills tried to block cities and towns from prohibiting short term rentals, which has put a squeeze on already hard-to-find housing stock and disrupted neighborhoods as the practice is now an investment strategy.

Other bills sought to loosen density requirements in local zoning regulations and make it easier to build multi-family dwellings.

Those kinds of decisions have always been left at the local level, but no more.

The personal-freedom-loving lawmakers like to quote the state’s motto “Live free, or die,” but what they really mean is “Live like me, or die.”

It is clear a different group of politicians is in charge.

The question is if a majority of the state’s citizens agree with them.

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.

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