Distant Dome: National Issues Invading NH Legislature

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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

CONCORD – You can expect partisan politics to play a larger role in the legislature during the second year of a two-year term.

It is an election year and both parties are hard at work appealing to their bases and defining the other party as the bad guy.

However, the ill-will appears to be growing over the last decade and there is a reason or two for what is occurring.

More and more state legislatures are put in the middle of national issues that once were the purview of the political professionals.

One of the major reasons for the national attention is the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision swinging open the doors of the Brinks Trucks to let millions of dollars of outside money pour into a small state like New Hampshire to sway the outcome of elections.

The $1.3 million of campaign funds spent in 2022 on the New Hampshire Legislature by groups affiliated with the Koch Foundation would have been unimaginable before the court’s decision giving corporations first amendment rights as if they were individuals.

The national parties are also reaping the rewards of the decision and in turn spend rigorously to elect their candidates.

All that money investment does not come free as the people contributing expect a hefty return on investment.

Consequently many national wedge issues find their way into the legislative agendas of both parties.

The last few sessions of the House this month reflect some of what there was little of in years past.

For example House Bill 1156, which targets the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control over their guidance during the pandemic and its future guidance coming in a couple of months on pandemics to come.

The contention is that the two organizations put the state’s sovereignty at risk while revisiting the shutdown and masking debates from the pandemic’s greatest impact.

On its own, given the political philosophy of the majority of the Republican House members, it does not appear to be unusual.

But if you Google state sovereignty and WHO and CDC you will see that many other state legislatures have similar if not identical bills before them this year.

The national battle over electronic vote counting machines made it all the way down to town meeting votes this year, although the ban was not very successful, the push has been ongoing since the “Big Lie” over voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The National Republican Party had touted “voter integrity” which really means disenfranchising as many voters as possible before the 2024 election.

House Bill 1569 would do away with the affidavit exemption allowing a person to vote if a registered voter forgot a photo Id or the proper paperwork for same-day registration. That in itself will disenfranchise thousands of voters, and essentially does away with same-day registration, which New Hampshire adopted so it would not have to have motor-voter registration under the Help America Vote Act. 

This change is likely going to court if it passes the Senate and the governor signs it.

The bill also expands the challenged voter provision, which puts the onus on the challenged voter to go to superior court to prove otherwise which means thousands more will be disenfranchised.

Other bills approved by the House last week would shorten the time period for voter purges from the checklist.

On the other side, the House killed House Bill 1364 which would have resulted in criminal charges if someone intimidated an election official, exerted improper influence over the election process or tampered with electronic ballot counting devices.

While that has not been an issue in New Hampshire as it has in some other states, mostly in the south and southwest, you have to wonder why the House killed the bill unless some of what would be illegal is planned for the next election.

Democrats also pushed a bill to have the state join the Election Registration Information Center, which has not interested the state in the past, and was killed last week.

Democrats proposed a series of House resolutions, which indicate the wishes of the legislature, but do not have the weight of law that included universal health insurance, and differentiating between individual and corporate rights (sound familiar).

Perhaps the most costly example of New Hampshire following a national agenda is the Education Freedom Account program, which began three years ago following other nearly identical programs in places like Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Louisiana.

A recent study by the Cleveland Plain Dealer of the program in Ohio which greatly expanded its program last year, noted that despite the number of new students in the program, the enrollment in the public schools did not decline, meaning most of the students benefiting from the expansion were already in private schools meaning it’s ultimately a subsidy for parents who already could afford to pay the tuition. 

The study found that about 65 percent of the total grants were private school grants and most were to religious schools.

Those numbers also reflect what the New Hampshire program has seen, that most of the students enrolling in the program were already in private or religious schools, or homeschooling when the program began with 1,635 students in the 21-22 school year and growing to about 4,500 students for the 23-24 school year.

The year before the program began there were 164,918 students in public schools, according to data on the Department of Education’s website, and the first year of the program there were 164,950 students in public schools, the second year, 163,681 and this school year 165,082.

That too would indicate that most of the students receiving EFA grants are not leaving public schools to join the program.

The program’s income cap is expected to increase to 500 percent of the federal poverty level, next school year — the House has passed the bill, it is expected to pass the Senate and the governor has said he would sign it.

Parental rights are another issue that has been targeted nationwide by Republicans while Democrats continue to push for raising the minimum wage, which is a national issue since the state did away with its own minimum wage in the 2011-2012 term and moved to the federal rate.

And transgender issues have been before the legislature, particularly for minors, as they have been in many other states.

All the same issues surfacing at the same time would certainly indicate that some groups or organizations are behind the efforts.

And the political parties are also using state legislatures to continue what they hope will be the dividing lines in the upcoming election.

Oh for the days of clashes over education funding and shoreline protection.

But we are still fighting over education funding, but it’s at least our own fight.

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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