How Much Legislature Accomplishes Is Up for Debate

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


The New Hampshire Legislature is set up to have a dynamic not seen in Concord in decades.

Republicans control both the House and Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu sits ready in his office — when he is not traveling the country raising his profile — to sign any GOP initiative that makes its way to his desk.

The problem is if you are the Republicans, your majority in the House is razor thin and depends on who arrives at the Capitol on a session day.

It only takes one or two missing representatives to make things very interesting in the House.

And if you are in the House, you can expect some very long session days with debate, after debate, after debate on bills with any significance.

Almost all of the standing and special committees are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. There are two exceptions, Finance and Rules. Don’t you wonder why that is?

The even split may make for better bipartisan legislation over time, but it also can result in many 10-10 or 14-14 votes on a committee’s recommendations on bills which means the proposed legislation has two reports, but no committee recommendation when the House has to act on it.

So unless there is an agreement to hold debates to two speakers on each side, things could carry on for some time.

It is highly unlikely when a bill like House Bill 591, which would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, comes to vote in the House, there would be an agreement for only two speakers a side.

Abortion debates in the House and in the Senate are some of the most lengthy of any session.

Another issue that continues to produce much debate is the Education Freedom Accounts or the state’s expansive voucher program.

There are numerous bills in the House and one or two in the Senate that would change the program which has cost the state considerably more money than predicted and is likely to approach $100 million for the first four years.

Some of the bills would expand the program by either raising the income cap or eliminating it, others would add various students who would automatically qualify to apply.

And of course there are bills that would rein in the state’s responsibility or as the opponents would say bring accountability, transparency and meaningful data to judge the program’s effectiveness.

One bill would have the state Department of Education administer the program instead of the private Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, and another would require students be in a public school for one year before they could apply.

That bill addresses the biggest concern of many opponents of the existing program: about 75 percent of the grants are tuition subsidy payments to private and religious schools and homeschools who were in those institutions before the program began in 2021.

Proponents sold the program as enabling lower income parents to use the equivalent of their student’s adequacy grant to find the most appropriate educational activity for his or her learning.

The House Education Committee last week had an executive session to decide on several of the bills all with a 10-10 vote from the committee on either ought to pass or to kill the bill.

One bill would have raised the income cap to 500 percent of poverty which would be a family of four earning $150,000, and a two-person family $98,600.

That bill drew 10-10 party line votes on several motions so it will go to the floor without a recommendation, and the bill to require students be in public school for a year before applying for a voucher had a similar fate and no committee recommendation as well.

Both bills have financial implications so will need to go to the House Finance Committee for review and have to be voted on by the House by Feb. 23, which will be one very long session day.

Tie votes are also likely on things like changes to the state’s divisive concepts law and issues like bail reform.

That is the first part of the equations in the House, the other is the razor thin Republican majority.

There are a couple of special elections coming up that may even make things more interesting, particularly the race for the House seat representing Ward 4 in Rochester between incumbent Democrat Chuck Grassie and Republican David Walker Feb. 21 who tied in the 2022 general election.

The House’s current partisan split is 201 Republicans and196 Democrats, with two vacancies and one representative not sworn in. 

The vacancies are the Rochester seat and another in Nashua and long-time Nashua Representative Democrat David Cote has not been sworn in.

The vacant Nashua seat’s special election will be May 16 with a Republican primary March 28. Interestingly there would be a Republican primary for a seat that is bound to be won by the Democrat registered to run. By holding the primary the new member cannot be sworn in until after May 16, giving Republicans a longer window with one less Democrat in the House.

That may be very important in the days ahead, as that two or three-vote advantage will be tested.

Take for example the freedom account program, which is not all that popular with some Republicans who see it as a drain on the public school system.

So when the EFA bills come to the House floor, who is there that day may well determine if one of those bills passes or is killed.

In the House Education Committee executive committee last week the ranking Democrat Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, told Republicans the Democrats could have brought in a bill to repeal the program, and had an opportunity to be successful, but decided not to do that because of the students already in the program, but will try to make it more accountable, transparent and limited in terms of state money flowing out of the Education Trust Fund that will in no time impact the available money for public schools.

Chances are nothing will change with the EFA program or on abortion rights or any other controversial issue with the House in near deadlock.

There will have to be some serious compromises to pass a budget package out of the House this year.

And with the House so closely divided, controversial bills coming out of the Senate are not likely to sail through the House.

It will be a reversal of the traditional arrangement where the Senate kills the more extreme bills coming from the House saving the governor from having to veto a controversial bill.

With Sununu trying to raise his profile for a possible presidential run, he will not be disappointed if not much at all gets through the legislature.

He will not have to veto bills prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates or parent’s bill of rights that would violate state law.

The next two years are not likely to produce much in the way of significant changes, unlike the last two years.

And that could be a good thing as everyone takes a deep breath and waits for the 2024 elections and its aftermath.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for 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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