State House Dome: On schedule, ultimate Christmas Tree bill emerges

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·8 min read
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Mar. 13—EVERY TWO YEARS, it's the mother of all political Christmas trees.

That's HB 2, the so-called "trailer bill" to the state budget.

Gov. Chris Sununu gave his two-year state budget address more than a month ago, but this massive, inter-connected bill just came off the printing press last week.

As we saw last year when Democrats controlled the Legislature, Sununu is no fan of these "omnibus" bills, which contain an assortment of items in one mega-package.

Democratic legislative leaders did it to reduce the number of bills they had to process during a murky session in the midst of the pandemic.

Sununu vetoed more than 20 of them last year, many because he objected to one or two provisions in a bill with 20 or more measures.

When it comes to the state budget, the governor doesn't get a choice.

New Hampshire's budget statute doesn't permit the actual state budget (HB 1) to make any changes in state law.

They all must be done in a separate bill, HB 2.

When the final, state budget is negotiated this June, HB 2 will be the so-called "last chopper out of Saigon."

Lobbyists for interest groups, state agency heads and veteran budget writers will try desperately to attach their pet project to this bill, which gets, at the end of debate, an up-or-down vote.

As state government has become more complex, so has HB 2.

Thirty years ago, it had more than 100 sections. Around the turn of the century, the number was up to more than 200 sections.

This latest version has 292 sections.

Here are just a few of the changes in this bill that Sununu didn't highlight in his budget package.

—Sale of Lakes Region property in Laconia: After many study groups and schematic drawings, Sununu believes a private developer can do more with the former minimum-security prison and state school complex if the state would simply sell the parcel outright. This gives the governor the power to do that, with the approval of the Executive Council.

—Bear damage compensation: Believe it or not, when a farmer finds a bear has damaged his crops, disputes can arise between what the owner thinks he should get and what Fish and Game is willing to award. This creates an appeals hearing process for those unhappy with outcome.

—FRM Fund: For more than a decade, the victims of the Financial Resources Management investment scam have asked lawmakers for a compensation fund to reimburse those caught in the biggest Ponzi scheme in state history. This would spend $500,000 in each of the next two years.

—Ending the Laurie List: Sununu's Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) endorsed an independent entity to hear future complaints about police misconduct. Working out the details of how such a group would work has proven elusive early on. As a fallback, Sununu creates a commission to hash out the fine print for lawmakers to act on in 2022.

More reopening plans

While Sununu was announcing the latest round of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions for businesses last Thursday, his Economic Reopening Task Force was putting the finishing touches on other moves to loosen restrictions.

The group approved expanding the capacity for crowds attending performing arts events, as well as amusement parks and tourist trains.

Performers could play before at least 75% of a hall's capacity, or the number of people that can fit in with three, rather than six, feet of physical distancing.

Audience members would not face one another and the mask requirement would still be in force.

Both amusement parks and tourist trains could open at 100% as long as the six feet of separation remains in place.

Sununu said last Thursday he looks forward to reviewing them.

"I haven't seen them yet, but I'll take a look and act on them as quickly as possible," he said.

School choice report

The fiscally conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy will issue a report early this week on the financial and enrollment impact of pending legislation to create education freedom savings accounts.

We got an exclusive look at the draft findings from the center's economist.

The study is timely because the state Senate on Thursday will debate its school choice bill (SB 130).

The House Education Committee already has decided to put off work on its own choice bill, likely until early 2022.

This is the first detailed analysis since the House and Senate bills were changed to limit these scholarships for private schools to families that earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level.

The study finds 31% of students would be eligible for these scholarships, with a projected first-year cost of $2.4 million. The group maintains the taxpayer savings would be $1.85 million because public school districts would save $4.2 million in lower costs associated with students leaving, which would go up to $4.8 million in the second year.

The study concludes 966 students would use the scholarships in the first year and 2,335 in the second year.

The study further figures on an increase in lifetime earnings per student and an overall economic benefit from more high school graduates.

Before changes to limit these scholarships, the left-of-center Reaching Higher N.H. did its own critical study of the voucher effort, contending they could cost local school districts as much as $50 million in the first year.

Public school advocates maintain the fixed costs to run public schools would not go down as much as supporters claim from students leaving districts.

Morse honors Hinch

At the close of last week's Senate session, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, offered a classy tribute to the late House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack.

Morse agreed to author the business tax cut bill (SB 13) the Senate passed last week after Hinch's death last December related to contracting COVID-19.

"He firmly believed we had a vote on this years ago. It needed to be restored to what we said we would do," Morse said.

"I want his family to know he is in still in our hearts. He made a difference while he was here."

Big Dem Party showdown

The Democratic State Committee members meet Sunday afternoon to decide whether Raymond Buckley gets an eighth two-year term as party chair.

You've got to install Buckley as the favorite given how many favors he's performed for many of this electorate, but Somersworth café owner and 2020 Executive Council candidate Emmet Soldati has put on a very strong challenge.

Jaime Harrison, the new national party chairman, will speak to the group.

Buckley had a relationship with Harrison, the former South Carolina chairman who raised a record $60 million in an unsuccessful attempt to take out Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

But Harrison is staying out of the party chair fight.

Slow start, new deadlines

COVID-19 restrictions and the pace of virtual-versus-in person legislating surely meant the 2021 session was going to get off to a slow start. It did.

The pace has picked up, though House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, announced that he's moved back the deadline for "crossover," the crazy hell week deadline for all House bills have to go over to the state Senate, and vice versa.

In a typical year, crossover is the last Thursday of March.

The new date for 2021 is Friday, April 9. That coincides with the last day of a three-day marathon meeting planned for the N.H. Sportsplex in Bedford.

Rep stars in vaccine story

State Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanborton, was on CNN last week, starring in a pretty long piece about the debate in New Hampshire and across the country over the right of citizens to turn down vaccines.

Lang is the prime author of a bill (HB 220) to ensure there is no punishment or sanction for anyone who declines the vaccine.

A House committee recently endorsed the amended bill, 18-1, after allowing for employers to require vaccines in respond to a "direct threat" and permitting schools and child care agencies to mandate vaccines.

Last week, Sununu said he expects the percentage of those electing to get shots will drop as the vaccine is made available to younger residents.

Even in nursing homes, 15% to 20% of patients initially opted not to get the vaccine.

New Hampshire led the nation in vaccination of long-term care staff, and the rate was only 60%.

"We've seen hundreds of Manchester teachers who've elected not to get the vaccine, which is their right," Sununu said.

"I think as you get to those next levels, the 20-, 30-, 40-year-old demographic where there haven't been any fatalities to speak of, it's natural to assume more folks are going to say, 'I'm good, I don't need it,' " Sununu said.

No racial data collection

Lawyers and activists for minority groups are mad that a State Senate panel has rejected key provisions of Sununu's LEACT Commission to collect racial data about interaction with police officers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 3-2, to instead create a study committee (SB 96).

Joseph Lascaze of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, James T. McKim of the NAACP Manchester chapter, Ronelle Tshiela of Black Lives Matter in Manchester, and criminal defense lawyer Julian Jefferson all were on the LEACT panel and fired off a stinging statement last Friday.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee's decision effectively guts this bill and is a disservice to the New Hampshire community members who shared their experiences of discrimination, as well as the LEACT members who spent hundreds of hours meeting, hearing testimony, and formulating recommendations to help make New Hampshire a more equitable place," they wrote.

Kevin Landrigan is the State House bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at klandrigan@unionleader.com.