By Garry Rayno, InDepthNH.org
The Legislature returns to Concord this week to begin the 2020 session facing a slew of bills left from the 2019 session.
Returning lawmakers will greet old friends and colleagues while the two parties seek to establish the political battlefield for November’s general election.
Representatives and senators usually approach a new session with optimism, but the polluted political climate instead will make this a difficult session from the first day, which was Wednesday.
Hyperbole has been on display from elected leaders since before the session began and will likely continue and expand as we move toward adjournment in June.
With two Democratic leaders seeking their party’s gubernatorial nomination to take on GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who is seeking a third term, the opportunities to score political points are endless.
District 2 Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord has already questioned how truthful Sununu was about not re-nominating Glenn Normandeau as head of the Fish and Game Department as well as saying Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who wants lawmakers to approve a $46 million grant for new charter schools, should resign.
He also questioned Sununu at a council meeting about the governor’s negotiations with state employees on a master contract.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord also questioned Sununu about his involvement in denying Normandeau another term.
Other issues Feltes raised include the governor’s involvement in placing Waterville Valley in the federal “opportunity zone” program created as part of the federal tax overhaul several years ago. Sununu’s family owns the Waterville Valley resort.
Feltes was also critical of Sununu for traveling the state presenting oversized ceremonial checks for additional state education aid passed in the compromise budget approved in September, after he fought it during budget negotiations. Feltes called Sununu’s road trips a political stunt.
Sununu was critical of Feltes for voting against the first $10 million grant for new charter schools and the list goes on.
The interactions are bound to escalate as election day nears.
The first House Calendar of 2020 includes a warning from House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff of Concord about posts on social media by House members.
“Recently, there have been several very disappointing social media posts from members on both sides of the aisle of the New Hampshire House,” Shurtleff wrote. “I remind members that you should not be writing or saying anything in a public venue that you would not be proud to read from the well of the House, especially if you choose to use your legislative title.”
The Speaker quotes Abraham Lincoln in instructing House members to be mindful of the impressions they create in public forums.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
Shurtleff said Lincoln’s words are just as important today as they were over 150 years ago.
“We must never forget that one of our primary responsibilities as state representatives is to maintain the integrity and dignity of the New Hampshire House,” he wrote.
While Lincoln’s words bear the weight of truth, chances are there will be some lawmakers who will not take them to heart in the months ahead.
Perhaps the most controversial bill lawmakers will decide this week is House Bill 687 or the “red flag law” which would allow the confiscation of firearms from someone who is at risk to him or herself or to others.
The bill has the backing of a wide array of organizations and agencies as a “half-way” measure between current laws and greater gun control legislation, but not here.
Although 17 states and Washington D.C. have “red flag laws,” here the bill has been vigorously opposed by gun rights groups who claim the bill has too many flaws.
The bill would allow family, law enforcement and household members to petition a court to confiscate a person’s firearms if there is a danger to him or her or others.
A court hearing would be held and a determination made.
Supporters say the bill would allow early intervention to prevent a tragedy while not permanently taking a person’s guns.
But opponents say under the bill, the person would not be able to respond before his or her guns are confiscated, allows ex parte hearings over the phone and would encourage abuse by disgruntled family members.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee failed to agree on a recommendation so the bill will come to the floor with none, meaning a heated debate.
The bill drew a crowd last spring and controversy when several criminal justice committee members wore pearls, which proponents said was intended to mock them.
Although there was bipartisan agreement on an independent redistricting commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries, Sununu vetoed the bill and Republicans closed ranks and upheld the veto.
The House will have two opportunities to approve an independent commission, one as a proposed constitutional amendment which the governor cannot veto if it passes by a 60 percent majority in the House and Senate, which is possible, and as a Senate Bill which he could veto.
Both the House and the Senate will debate bills that would expand the net metering program to allow greater amounts of electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines to count against a person’s electric bill and allowing larger organizations to participate.
The legislature has passed similar bills the past few years only to run into a veto buzz-saw.
Several tax issues will also be hotly contested including a road usage fee to ensnare hybrid and electric vehicles and a registration fee for canoes and kayaks.
Plastics will also be controversial as two bills before the House would allow municipalities to ban single-use plastic, and to enact ordinances restricting its use.
And lawmakers will again debate the work requirement under the Medicaid expansion program providing health insurance to low-income adults.
Another issue lawmakers passed last session, but Sununu vetoed, will be back before the House, a paid family and medical leave program.
House and Senate leadership hopes to finish up most of the remaining bills this week, but have reserved some days later this month for more sessions if necessary.
When Pat Buchanan was first running for president in 1992, prior to a cable news program in Rochester, he told me the definition of “harm’s way” in Washington was being between the television cameras and Texas U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.
Gramm and Buchanan would square off with others four years later seeking to be the Republicans’ presidential nominee although neither were successful.
In New Hampshire where lawmakers are paid a paltry $100 a year for their service, the stakes are a little lower but no less intense.
The definition of “harm’s way” in Concord is being between free food and lawmakers.
The beginning of any session is laden with free meals for lawmakers and this year is no exception.
On the first day of the session, the New Hampshire Bankers Association hosts a “Welcome Back Breakfast” in the State House Cafeteria from 7:30- 9:30 a.m., and the Sheehan Phinney Capitol Group hosts a “Welcome Back Reception” at Tandy’s Pub and Grill after the session or at 3 p.m., whichever comes first.
The freebies continue Thursday when the Business and Industry Association hosts a “Welcome Back Legislators” reception at the Concord Holiday Inn from 4-6 p.m. and Friday, the New Hampshire Technical Institute or Concord’s Community College hosts a Legislative Breakfast at 7:30 a.m. in Grappone Hall on its campus.
The free food continues Jan. 21 when the New Hampshire Retail Lumber Association hosts a breakfast in the State House Cafeteria and Jan. 23 when the New Hampshire Association of Nurse Anesthetists hosts its annual legislative breakfast in the cafeteria.
And closing out January, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network — NH hosts its annual breakfast Jan. 30 in the cafeteria, while the New Hampshire Nurse Practitioner Association opens February with its annual breakfast for lawmakers Feb. 4 in the cafeteria.
There will be more to come but what a lineup to start the session. No one should be hungry entering the day’s session or committee meetings.
No one has ever filed an ethics complaint about the free food during the session, but that may change given the political climate.