Distant Dome: Second Year of Legislative Term Always More Contentious

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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.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

The second year of a legislative term is always more political than the first as the two parties try to establish their positions and make the other side look abominable going into the fall general election.

Gone are the Kumbaya days of the bipartisan budget deal and work on expanding housing and day care services, two of the state’s biggest needs, if New Hampshire is to be economically viable.

Instead there will be numerous bills on abortion rights or bans, the continuing war on public education and attempts to turn a few hundred trans kids into a wedge issue to turn out voters.

By the time the session ends in early June, everyone will be ready to go home and campaign to repeat the process the next term.

The fun begins Wednesday when the House and Senate return to act on the bills they failed to act on from the 2023 session and there are a lot of them.

Most are recommended for the burn pile, but some are not and a number of House bills will come to the floor without a committee recommendation as an evenly divided committee deadlocked on what to do.

One such bill coming out of the House Education Committee would require any non-public school or education service that accepts public money to perform background checks on all volunteers and employees as public schools are required to do. The providers in the Education Freedom Account program face no such test.

The House Education Committee has a number of bills that do not have a recommendation that will likely be debated when they come up for a vote this week, including making school building aid available to charter schools, and reducing the amount of money a school districts needs to pay for special education services to be eligible for the catastrophic aid program.

The Senate Education Committee this week will debate a bill to allow charter schools to participate in the state building aid program, so the issue will be alive this session no matter how the House votes Wednesday or Thursday on the bill.

The abortion issue will be front and center this session as the two sides are pushing the limits.

The pro-abortion advocates want a constitutional amendment enshrining reproductive rights in the state constitution and ensuring medicinal abortion drugs are available. There is also a bill that would shield women who receive an abortion in New Hampshire and their medical providers from prosecution in another state like Texas or Alabama.

On the other side, the anti-abortion advocates seek to ban abortion after 15 days of conception and seek to limit other abortion procedures.

Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold public hearings on four bills that would expand access to abortion services so engagement on this issue starts early.

The same day the fight over public education begins as well before the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 341 is an end run around the House’s action on the parental rights bill that was killed last session and indefinitely postponed, which means its content cannot come before the House again during the two-year term.

SB 341 would require any school district employee to answer parents’ written questions about their student within 10 days as “completely and honestly to the extent permitted by law.” A concern that answering the questions might mean harm to the student would be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services under the bill, and failure to comply with the parental request would lead to disciplinary action including termination.

A legislative committee worked the past two years to determine what can be done about the shortage of teachers, obviously this bill will exacerbate that problem.

This bill, like the parental bill of rights killed last year, would allow parents to be informed if their student uses nicknames or pronouns for a gender transition, which was the concern a year ago and how it might be harmful to students and break a confidence between a student and a teacher or other education professional.

The Senate committee will also hold a public hearing on Senate Bill 442 that would automatically allow a student turned down for the Education Freedom Account program because their parents earn too much money, would automatically be eligible the next year for the program regardless of parental income.

The same committee will hear Senate Bill 522, which would establish an early learning scholarship account much like the EFA for students in preschool again drawing money from the Education Trust Fund and the general fund as the EFA does to establish a special scholarship account for pre-kindergarten students to attend preschool programs.

Another contentious subject this session will be gun control after the mass killing of 18 people in Maine that injured 13 other people about a month ago.

The suspect, who killed himself, Robert Card, had threatened workers at a southern New Hampshire bakery several days earlier.

This upcoming session will have bills dealing with access to guns including one that looks like a red flag law, which has never passed in New Hampshire, as well as a waiting period before a gun is given to the buyer, and closing the background check loophole for gun shows and private sales.

A bill with bipartisan support would allow the state to provide the federal database for gun purchases with information about a person’s mental health treatment or concerns.

Currently the state does not share that information with the federal database.

The state’s ongoing housing shortage has several bills that would address the problem including one allowing accessory dwelling units on existing lots or attached to existing buildings or “in-law apartments.”
While there is support for the concept, there is also opposition from people who fear it will over-tax water and sewer systems, not to mention change the ambiance of existing single-family home neighborhoods.

Other housing bills would make it easier for communities to change their zoning and land use laws as well as use more money from the real estate transfer tax for affordable housing.

And the state’s bail system is the subject of a number of bills as some would tighten the requirements for violent offenders or multiple offense suspects.

The legislature will also once again take up the recreational sale of cannabis trying to reach some agreement on how the state may join the rest of New England in legalizing pot sales.

Other issues include transgender care, school curriculums and PFAs.

And House Bill 1084 would require the next education commissioner to actually be an educator unlike current commissioner Frank Edelblut.

So it is time to cook the popcorn, find a comfortable chair and hang on for the next six months to see what the 2024 legislature does.

With an almost evenly split House and an investigation into how one member who never should have been seated because he moved out of his district before the 2022 election was handled by leadership, things could be even more interesting before lawmakers go home in June.

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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