By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
The New Hampshire legislature is officially on vacation for a week.
The first two months of the session have been hectic and a little hesitant as lawmakers in the House navigate an almost equally divided chamber.
One of the results of the current 201-198 split is that all but two House committees have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, although the chair and vice chairs are mostly members of the GOP but not all.
The two committees that are not evenly divided are the House Finance Committee and the House Rules Committee, to no one’s surprise.
But the evenly divided committee has produced a lot of very close committee votes on bill recommendations and on some of the most controversial bills with no recommendation coming to the House floor.
No recommendation usually means a lengthy debate but so far that has not happened very often.
The closely divided House, also enhances the old legislative adage, “It depends on who shows up.”
Neither side can afford to have many members missing on session days when they are voting on bills.
And that was very clear Thursday when you would expect a lower turnout of Representatives due to the morning’s harsh travel conditions from the storm the night before.
Excused absences for the day numbered 23, not many more than the day before when there were 17. However not all absences are excused and judging from the early and later votes there were between 345 and 355 members present, which is not far from the usual House attendance.
Republicans may control the House, but they have a very tenuous grip when it comes to winning votes on bills.
On any given bill, a few GOP members can join the Democrats and the best laid plans can go off the rails.
There were some significant losses the last two days of sessions before the vacation for the GOP.
Thursday was a deadline for voting on bills that need to go to a second committee for further review, usually House Finance or House Ways and Means so if those bills don’t pass Thursday and remain on the table where a number of them were, it will take a two-thirds majority to send the bill to another committee for review when they return next week, a very high bar in an evenly divided body.
Until the end of the session Thursday, it only required a simple majority to take the bills off the table.
One of the bills on the table was House Bill 430, which would limit the Education Freedom Account program going after the one area many feel is being abused.
The vote on the bill earlier in the month was a tie, and it was tabled to allow it to come back before the House at a later date.
The effect of the bill would be to prevent students in private, religious or home school programs from accessing the program unless they attend public schools for one year.
Currently about 75 percent of the EFA grants go to pay tuition costs for students who were in private, religious or homeschool settings before the program began last year.
The program has been much more expensive than anticipated. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut predicted the program would cost $3.2 million this biennium but to date has cost about $25 million, and he asked for $30 million in each of the two years of the next biennium and Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget would appropriate $56 million from the Education Trust Fund over the next two years.
The bill failed to pass on a tie vote when it was first before the House, but was tabled.
Thursday the bill was taken off the table and passed on a 176-169 vote and will go to the House Finance Committee for review before a final House Vote.
There is no guarantee the bill will pass a second time after it comes back from Finance, but again it is going to depend on who shows up.
The bill is dead in the Republican controlled — 14-10 — Senate, but the message has been sent as far as Democrats are concerned the program needs to be reined in.
That was only one of three straight votes at the end of the session the Republicans lost.
They also lost on a bill that would change the way renewable energy certificates or RECs are distributed in House Bill 234 repealing a current practice of giving RECs to large generators.
The bill passed on a 177-167 vote.
And the third setback was a bill to study electric vehicle charging stations for renters House Bill 111.
That bill passed on a 175-172 vote.
After two setbacks and needing to regroup, Deputy House Speaker Steven Smith called a 30-minute recess, which upset the Democrats who were on a roll.
The outburst from some of the younger Democrats was rebuked by Smith and later by Rep. Fred Doucette, R-Salem in a press release talking about decorum in the House. He must have not remembered the behavior of some Republicans during the last two years that was far more demeaning to the institution.
He also forgot to mention the 2020 session when the Republicans in the “Freedom seats” (without masks) in the Whittemore Arena at the University of New Hampshire left beer bottles in the trash can after a lunch break.
But the break and the outburst by Democrats did little to change the outcome, as the Democrats had the votes and the Republicans did not.
Another setback for the Libertarian-Free Stater wing of the Republicans was the House voting down a bill that would have urged an Article 5 constitutional convention to deal with the federal debt, Congressional inaction and term limits, although others warned the convention could do much more to change the constitution.
Although the State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee voted 13-5 to recommend the House Concurrent Resolution 1 pass, the House voted 198-150 to kill it.
The Republicans did not take their defeats well.
Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, one of the main drivers of the Education Freedom Account program issued a press release saying the Democrats want to end school choice.
““This is just a further attempt to disrupt the wildly successful Education Freedom Account program by limiting school choice and reducing the ability for children to reach their full potential,” he said. “Democrats will not stop until they are successful in removing all children from the EFA program and forcing them back into a learning environment that will set them up for failure.”
The program was sold as a way for parents and students in public schools to find the most appropriate educational setting for their students, which is a small number of the participants in the program. Most participants were in private, religious or homeschool programs before the program began meaning the grants are a subsidy to those children’s parents.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, put out a press release saying Democrats showed their true colors when they had the majority.
“The first two votes they took today were to strip education from less fortunate children and raise electric rates by over $30 million,” Osborne said. “House Democrats are hurting the families of New Hampshire. Their agenda is on full display and Granite Staters should take note.”
In the interest of honesty, the two votes he talks about came at the end of the day not the first two, the EFA bill did not strip education for less fortunate, unless the less fortunate go to private and religious schools and are homeschooled, and $30 million is an at best exaggeration of the cost of the RECs bill.
What is on full display is Republicans’ belief they have a God given right to be the majority party in New Hampshire although the numbers say the opposite.
The votes for Democratic candidates were greater than Republican candidates in the House, the Senate and the Executive Council in the 2022 election.
Republicans ought to be thankful for their US-Supreme-Court-given right to gerrymander the state’s political boundaries or they would not be the majority in the House, the Senate or the Executive Council.
You just might say after Thursday’s session, House Republicans are poor losers and ungracious winners.
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.