Sununu vetoes bill to ban face covering mandate in schools

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May 20—CONCORD — Calling it "Big Government" and a "one-size-fits-all approach," Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed legislation to place a ban on requiring students or the public to wear face coverings while inside public schools.

Sununu signed 55 other bills Friday and only rejected this one (HB 1131), which was a priority of the anti-vaccine mandate activists that packed committee hearing rooms several times during the 2022 session.

In his veto message, Sununu said the bill violates local control, a hallmark of public school regulation that leaves decisions to school boards and administrators.

"Just because we may not like a local decision does not mean we should remove their authority," Sununu wrote. "One of the state's foremost responsibilities is to know the limits of their power."

Sununu said it's inconsistent for the Legislature to oppose federal infringement on state rights such as vaccine mandates, while trying to usurp local power on similar topics.

"Big government is never the solution, and neither is a one-size-fits-all approach," he said.

The Senate passed the bill after removing a civil penalty against school boards that adopted a mask mandate and a clause that could have subjected teachers to a licensing sanction if they went along with one.

"I don't think teachers should be caught between school boards and health officials," said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.

Bill led to massive petition drive

Organizers with Rebuild N.H., a group that opposed Gov. Sununu's restrictions in response to COVID-19, brought petitions from more than 5,300 residents supporting the legislation.

"We are all done. We are tired of testifying," said Kelley Potenza of Rochester, a vaccine mandate opponent. "We don't have any patience anymore. It is not your choice; it is parental choice. There is no more time. Let's get it done."

Rep. Jerry Knirk, D-Freedom, had argued a mask mandate needed to stay an option in case the coronavirus were to return to New Hampshire with a vengeance.

"This ties the hands of our public health experts and school boards that need the flexibility to respond in real time to threats of disease that emerge," said Knirk, a retired spinal surgeon. "I think it violates public health policy."

There's no doubt Sununu will win a veto override fight with bill supporters.

The Senate passed it along party lines, 14-10, while the House vote was even closer, 166-157.

"The state must remain steadfast in protecting local control as decisions like this are best left to authorities closest to parents and families where they can work with their neighbors to decide what is right for the children," Sununu added.

Among the bills Sununu signed was a first-in-the-nation privacy for personal medical information in health and human service databases (SB 423), House Speaker Sherman Packard's bill to ban police profiling of motorcyclists (HB 1000) and a new, mandatory public information campaign to inform citizens they have the right to withdraw from an immunization registry that keeps all vaccine records (HB 1608).

klandrigan@unionleader.com