Distant Dome: NH Legislature Changes State Policies and Philosophy

By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org

After this week, the only thing for the legislature to do is come back and try to override Governor Chris Sununu’s vetoes.

Given the partisanship of the past two years, any overshoot is highly unlikely.

So far, Sununu has only issued a few vetoes, although most of the bills he has publicly expressed concern about have not yet reached his desk.

The past two years have been typical of the New Hampshire legislature over the past few decades, swinging a political spectrum 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

This would be more apparent had Sununu not vetoed a record number of bills in the past two years when Democrats controlled the House and Senate and Executive Council, all of which are now in Republican hands.

This legislature has produced major political changes, even from past Republican-controlled legislatures, as well as changes in the philosophy of the role of state government in our lives.

Things that used to be local control or personal decisions have been brought together under the umbrella of state government.

The biennial budget passed last year contained major changes in state policies that had not been seen in decades. Budgets still contain policy changes that should require separate legislation, but not as much as the current budget package did.

Education

GOP lawmakers tried for years to institute a voucher program, but succeeded only with a limited Business Tax Credit scholarship program.

Several sessions ago, a similar Education Freedom Account bill passed the Senate, but fell through after the opposition stormed out in the House.

Last year, it looked like that might be the case again, as the House sent its version of the legislation on the education freedom account to interim consideration after amending the bill to put railings on the program while realizing that more work was needed to make it acceptable to a majority. .

The Senate made the changes proposed by the House to its version, then inserted it into the budget package where it remained when the House and Senate approved the two-year operating budget according to the parties.

New Hampshire’s program was called the largest in the country, and lawmakers quickly discovered how the price tag – estimated at $290,000 – soared to $9 million and more.

And most of the money has not gone to students leaving public schools for more appropriate educational settings, but to students already enrolled in private – mostly religious – schools and home-schooling programs.

It’s money the state wasn’t spending on public education until this year and it comes from the Education Trust Fund that pays public school adequacy grants and grants per student for charter schools.

The program also allows public funds to be spent on specific religious programs through qualified vendors selling religious materials to parents.

New Hampshire’s constitution prohibits spending public money in defense of religions, while U.S. Supreme Court decisions cited by proponents of the program have addressed the Blaine Amendment in many state constitutions, including that of New Hampshire.

Attempts to rein in the program this year have been rejected, generally along party lines.

The budget package also contained an overhaul of what was called the Dividing Concepts Bill, but was placed under the state’s discrimination laws.

Despite the change, several lawsuits have been filed over the provision. Attempts to extend the scope of the offer to higher education and to extend the scope of the state to the public education program failed this session.

The original bill was based on an executive order from former President Donald Trump, and Sununu has vowed to veto it. But when he had to decide on the budget package, he said the budget was too big and signed the law.

Abortion

The New Hampshire legislature has consistently pushed back against attempts to limit reproductive and abortion rights, with the exception of parental notification which contains judicial circumvention.

Like education freedom accounts, abortion restrictions did not have to stand on their own and were instead made part of the budget package.

The state’s first-ever abortion ban prohibits the procedure after the 23rd week of pregnancy with the sole exception of the mother’s life. Lawmakers also moved to criminalize health care providers who perform abortions after that time and to require invasive ultrasound for any stage of the abortion.

The law was amended this year to add an exception for fatal fetal abnormalities and clarified that the ultrasound requirement is for abortions close to the 23rd week.

The change did not include exceptions for rape and incest as many had requested.

This year, the Senate killed or sent for interim consideration other abortion restrictions passed by the House.

The Republican-controlled legislature has refused to enshrine constitutional rights in state law under the federal Roe v. Wade decision, which is expected to be overturned by the current U.S. Supreme Court.

Local control

New Hampshire is not a local control state, where anything that the government does not regulate or supervise may be regulated or supervised by the local government. There were attempts to change the law, but supporters gave up knowing that the legislature was not about to cede some of its authority to cities and towns.

But traditionally, there have been areas of local control that the state government has not sought to penetrate, such as zoning and planning, school curriculum and local health issues.

And the government has never tried to handle the serious stuff of private companies or organizations, as they have for the past two years.

Much of the local control problem has to do with the COVID pandemic and strategies to curb its spread or protect the most vulnerable citizens.

But the outlook has changed with the current legislature.

Not only did the legislature begin to pay attention to the curriculum being taught in public schools, but it also decided that local school officials could not impose mask mandates on students, faculty and staff.

They have passed bills prohibiting public entities from banning and not hiring someone who has not been vaccinated against COVID and have tried to extend this to public health facilities and private companies.

Much of what has been attempted has not been successful, but some has, putting the state and some health organizations like hospitals at risk of losing significant federal funds.

Medical freedom is the battle cry, although a large majority of the state’s population is vaccinated.

Bills have tried to prevent cities and towns from banning short-term rentals, straining the already hard-to-find housing stock and disrupting neighborhoods as the practice is now a strategy of investment.

Other bills sought to relax density requirements in local zoning regulations and facilitate the construction of multi-family dwellings.

These kinds of decisions have always been left to the local level, but no longer.

Personal freedom-loving lawmakers like to quote the state motto “Live free or die,” but what they really mean is “Live like me or die.”

Clearly a different group of politicians are in charge.

The question is whether the majority of the citizens of the state agree with them.

Garry Rayno can be reached at [email protected]

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state events for InDepthNH.org. During his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. Over the course of his career, his coverage has spanned the spectrum of news, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electrical industry deregulation and presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.