Partisan Divide Fuels Acrimonious Home Session

House members were allowed to go maskless if they chose either because they did not want to wear them or because of health reasons. The Attorney General’s Office said the Legislature is exempt from Gov. Chris Sununu’s mask mandate. But they were supposed to wear masks if they left their seats. JEFFREY HASTINGS photo


BEDFORD — In an often contentious day, with the House’s partisan divide in full view, members hotly debated a number of issues including abortion and remote sessions.

The lingering ill will between the two parties turned the session into something more akin to fans at a football game than a session of the House of Representatives.

The Democrats walked out after Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, asked the House to bring up the second bill limiting abortion rights Wednesday instead of waiting until Thursday when it was expected to be discussed.

The walk-out failed to drop attendance below what was needed to have a quorum but did require a two-thirds majority for action on any bill.

House Speaker Sherman Packard locked the doors to the NH Sportsplex where the session was held at one point to retain the quorum and to prevent those who left from re-entering the building.

“We were blind-sided and the Speaker would not let us have a caucus which is unheard of,” said House Minority Leader Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. “The whole day we watched the Republicans advancing an extreme right-wing agenda, attacks on abortion rights and attacks on women.”

Osborne criticized Democrats for walking out.

“I’m disappointed, but I suppose I am not surprised over the highly juvenile antics by House Democrats,” said Osborne. “Rather than doing their job and debating the legislation before the House, they abandoned their responsibility to their constituents only because legislation they disagreed with passed.”

Earlier in the week, a federal judge dismissed a suit against Packard by seven disabled Democrats who sought to attend the meeting remotely citing legislative immunity.

The ruling required all members to attend in person if they intended to vote.

During Wednesday’s session, Packard had to remind maskless members on several occasions to wear their masks when they left their seats. Maskless members were in two sections, one for those who refused to wear a mask and one for those who medically could not wear masks, while those wearing masks were on the large main floor of the NHSportsplex.


During the session, the House passed two bills limiting abortion rights, one that would prohibit abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy and the other would require “appropriate medical care” for an aborted fetus “capable of living outside the mother” and would charge physicians with a class A felony for failing to do so.

During debate on House Bill 233, which was scheduled for Thursday’s session, several Democrats tried to delay the vote with numerous motions before Packard ruled Rep. Willis Giffith, D-Manchester, was making dilatory motions. His ruling was challenged but upheld by the about 230 house members who remained.

Supporters of the bill said New Hampshire’s laws make it impossible to determine if such an incident has occurred in New Hampshire.

Rep. Jordan Ulery, R-Hudson said the bill would require medical professionals to protect the fetus.

“Earlier we heard there is not a doctor or medical professional who would not do everything they could to save a fetus that was born,” he said. “This bill does that, this bill respects life.”

But Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said the bill deals with a horrible situation where a family has to make a heart-wrenching decision. She said the people making these decisions are members’ relatives and friends and no one makes such a decision lightly.

And she chided House members who she said want to make it a partisan issue. It only becomes a partisan issue when you do not think of women as members of society with the same rights and privileges as men, Smith said.

“This causes me to remember coming home from school and my mother watching the McCarthy hearings and hearing an attorney turn to Sen. McCarthy and say, ‘Have you not decency?’” Smith said. “That is what I am thinking about at this moment in this environment when winners are poor winners.”

The bill was approved on a 181-49 vote.

Earlier in the session, the House voted 191-160 to ban abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy and comes with criminal penalties for the healthcare providers. Smith said it was wrong for lawmakers to involve themselves in such a deeply personal decision.

“It is not the appropriate thing for us to do, for us to be involved,” Smith said. “And I ask you to do what this legislature has done for time immemorial and that is leave it to the mother, the partner, the religious advisor if they so choose and the medical professionals to do what’s appropriate when in the very unfortunate circumstances a pregnancy – early or late – doesn’t work out the way we would all hope it would work out.”
Speaker Pro Tem, Rep. Kim Rice, R-Hudson, said she has heard any number of excuses for failing to ban late-term abortions and that “they have been legal in New Hampshire up to the very moment of birth.”

Her voice rose when she said: “I know that 11th hour abortions will remain legal unless this House takes long overdue and decisive action.”

The House has passed similar bills in the past that have been killed by the Senate.

House members in this section wore face masks. JEFFREY HASTINGS photo

Redistricting Commission

The House changed course from the last two years and voted to kill a bill that would have established an independent redistricting commission to draw the state’s political boundaries in light of the 2020 census.

The bill would allow the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate to pick 10 applicants out of a field developed by the Secretary of State’s Office and then five others for the commission.

The commission would be required to do its work in public and with public input and then present its recommendations to the legislature for a final decision.

But opponents of the bill said constitutionally it is the legislature’s duty to redraw the political boundaries for the Congressional Districts, Executive Council, state Senate and House.

The commission would create a non-elected partisan group to draw the boundaries that is separate from lawmakers who are chosen by New Hampshire voters, said Rep Fenton Groen, R-Rochester.

He noted the NH Legislature is the largest of any state’s making it the closest to the people as each member represents about 3,000 voters.

But supporters have long said an independent commission drawing the boundaries would allow the voters to select the politicians they want representing them not the politicians picking their voters so they can remain in office.

The bill’s prime sponsor Marjorie Smith, reminded House members they are there to represent the people of the state, and the people of the state overwhelmingly support an independent commission to do the work that the legislature would ultimately have to approve.

Smith said it is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it is an issue of right and wrong.

“Let us say we recognize this is an issue of right and wrong,” Smith said, “and we don’t gloat about whether we have certain votes or we don’ have certain votes.”

The bill was killed on a 198-158 vote largely down party lines.

COVID Forgiveness

The House wants to allow those fined and punished for violating Gov. Chris Sununu’s emergency executive orders on the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill would forgive violations of emergency orders when the state of emergency ends, return revoked or suspended licenses, refund fines, annul criminal charges, and not allow penalties to be considered for licensing.

Supporters said small businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic and many have struggled to meet the guidance issued by the governor’s commission.

“This is the first step in addressing the pain experienced by businesses and people over the last year,” said Rep. Chris True, R-Sanborn. “This says they have suffered enough, and we must stop this pain and despair.”

But opponents said the bill would send the wrong message by not holding violators accountable for not following measures intended to protect the public’s health and safety.

And they said it does not prevent the Attorney General’s Office from imposing more penalties.

“This sends a clear and unmistakable message to those who disagree with an emergency order, you are free to flout those orders without long-term consequences,” said Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth. “Freedom from accountability during a pandemic is not freedom, it is anarchy.”

Sununu said lawmakers should not be encouraging businesses to violate safety and health protections.

“We can’t claim to support Law and Order, then incentivize law breaking and reward those who do not follow the rules,” said Sununu after the vote. “Our reasonable public health guidelines allowed us to keep our economy open.  Rewarding the small handful who recklessly thwarted public health and safety after outreach and educational attempts is a complete disservice to the thousands of small businesses who worked tirelessly to keep their employees and customers safe while enabling our economy to stay open for business.”

The bill was approved on a 188-169 vote and goes to the House Finance Committee for review before final passage by the House.

The bill is one of several challenging the governor’s executive order and state of emergency declaration before the legislature this year.

Retirement Contribution

The House voted down a proposal to have the state pay 5 percent of retirement system contributions for teachers; state, county and municipal workers; police, and firefighters.

Under House Bill 274, the state would pay a yearly average of about $18 million over the next three years that cities and towns are currently paying.

Bill supporters said it would begin to restore the state’s 1967 promise to pay 40 percent of employers’ contribution when the state retirement system was established.

The state paid 35 percent for many years, but that was reduced in the late 2000s to 25 percent and eliminated in 2012.

“You are the representative for your taxpayers so help eliminate this burden thrusted 10 years ago back to the local communities,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Nashua. “This bill does not increase the demand on the pension system.”

But opponents argued the state has no control over the costs as cities and towns grant pay raises and add personnel. And they said there were far fewer employees when at the local level when the state initially agreed to contribute its share.

“We have seen in some cases extra money given to municipalities has resulted in higher spending, not property tax relief,” said Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom. “We should not impose an unfair subsidy for local employers.”

The bill initially failed to pass on a 172-186 vote before it was killed on an 180-168 vote.

Remote Rule

For the third time, House Republicans banded together to kill a rule change that would allow members to access House sessions remotely.

House leadership claims the rule change is necessary, but committee meetings are held remotely for some members with other members in the committee rooms in the Legislative Office Building.

“The rest of the world has adapted to Zoom quite well, but House Republicans continue to claim they are incapable of meeting through video technology,” said Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole. “The practical result of this Republican obstruction is that thousands of Granite Staters are disenfranchised because their elected representatives cannot attend in person during this pandemic.”

People with disabilities should not have fewer rights than those who seek to exploit them, she said.

“This vote shows, again, that the only reason we do not have any remote access to house sessions is because the Republican Majority does not want to allow it,” Weber said.

Deputy Speaker Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, opposed the idea telling Packard, “I don’t know how many people have a documented medical condition, but I do know when you and I were trying to figure out parking there was a whole lot that have documented medical conditions.”
Smith also said he understood there could be technological issues.

“I don’t think you or the clerk should be deciding which medical conditions” would qualify, Smith said.

Paid Leave

The House voted down House Bill 590, which would provide sick leave for New Hampshire workers.

The past few years, lawmakers have approved bills establishing a medical and paid family leave program only to have Sununu veto it.

“Granite Staters have overwhelmingly supported programs that expand access to paid sick time and paid family and medical leave for years,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord. “House Bill 590 would ensure that all workers in the state have access to paid sick days. We have known for a while, and the pandemic has made even clearer, that it is beneficial for everyone if sick employees stay home.”

Vulnerable Adults

The House voted 195-158 to end discussions about protections for vulnerable adults, a bill that has passed the legislature but been vetoed by Sununu.

The vote to indefinitely postpone the bill to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, exploitation, and neglect, prohibits the subject from being discussed for the remainder of the two-year term.

House Bill 246 is very similar to bills approved during the last two years.

“Today was the third time in as many years that a perfectly good bill that would protect vulnerable adult Granite Staters was hijacked by false partisan narratives around firearms,” said Cushing, the bill’s prime sponsor. “The testimony over the past several years on this legislation is clear, we need to do a better job protecting vulnerable people from financial and physical exploitation and abuse. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated situations of abuse for many people throughout New Hampshire and our constituents need the timely support this bill could have provided.”

The House approved:

House Bill 350, which would allow a person on the medical marijuana program or their caregiver to grow up to three mature plants and three immature plants.

The bill goes to the Senate which has failed to pass such a provision.

House Bill 427, which prohibits the use of corporal punishment on children in state programs.

House Bill 281, which delays implementing the single sales factor for the business profits tax for four years.

House Bill 615, which reduces the penalty for some first-offense drug possession charges, while increasing penalties for fentanyl possession. The bill also reduces penalties for non-violent drug offenses and eliminates felonies for first-time drug offenses.

The bill will be reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee.

House Bill 494, which sets the annual amount of money for school building and renovation projects at $50 million a year and requires the Department of Education to develop a 10-year school building plan. The bill will go to the House Finance Committee for review before final House action.

The House killed:

House Bill 145, which would have expanded the reach of the stand-your-ground statute by removing any requirement to first retreat before using deadly force.

(Nancy West contributed to this report.)

Garry Rayno may be reached at [email protected].

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