Capital Beat: Sneak peek at the next legislative session

By ETHAN DeWITT
Monitor staff

Saturday, November 24, 2018

As the makeup of the new Legislature takes shape – with some first-time state senators and representatives about to be sworn in after the new year – members and State House staff are already working on the legislation that will define their next eight months.

They’re called “legislative service requests,” and they allow representatives and senators to propose ideas that will be crafted into bills by the nonpartisan staff at Legislative Services, who mold the requests into actionable legislation that can be passed on to relevant committees. 

More than 300 requests have been submitted so far. The proposals run the gamut. 

To start, there are the heavy hitters. Rep. Rick Ladd, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Education Committee, has submitted a request to amend the “formula for determining funding for an adequate education” – a hot-button issue that comes as school districts face increasing funding disparities and as potential lawsuits loom. 

And Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, has taken the lead on legalizing cannabis in New Hampshire. It’s a familiar endeavor for the six-term representative, who corralled a similar bill to a 207-139 victory in the House in January, only to see it pushed to interim study.

And there are the newer items, from serious to frivolous. Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, is pressing to eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases. Keene Democratic Rep. Donovan Fenton wants to increase the availability of diaper changing stations in public restrooms.

Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, meanwhile, is pressing to designate Old Hampshire Applejack, a whiskey-like apple liquor made by the Tamworth Distilling Company in Tamworth, the official state spirit.

Some bill requests center on raising benefits for lawmakers themselves. Cushing has submitted a proposal to study the feasibility of “establishing a childcare facility for the State House complex,” drawing on longstanding concerns from some that the body is not friendly to younger members.

Democratic Rep. Richard Komi of Manchester has his own proposal: maternity care for members of the House. Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, a Concord Democrat, has suggested providing representatives a retirement plan.

And several members have introduced, for yet another year, efforts to pay legislators at higher amounts than the present $100 annual symbolic stipend.

That effort has traditionally been unsuccessful.

Rep. Michael Cahill, a Newmarket Democrat, has brought forward another third-rail issue for New Hampshire: reducing the size of the 400-member House, the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. That campaign, also time-tested, has drawn support from those who cite cost and efficiency, but it’s faltered in the face of an overpowering preference for smaller constituencies.

Then there are the gun bills.

After years of intense national focus, gun control legislation has long been an expected item for this biennium. Democratic control likely only heightens that.

Concord Democratic Rep. Katherine Rogers has submitted two bill requests that hew to similar efforts nationwide: one to impose a waiting period between the purchase and delivery of a firearm; the other to create a state requirement for background checks for firearms sales.

A group of four Democratic representatives and senators has also brought back a proposal to allow school districts to establish “gun-free zones” on a school-by-school basis. The idea, spearheaded this time by Portsmouth Democrat Jacqueline Cali-Pitts, was first introduced as a late amendment by Sen. Martha Hennessey in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, in which 17 children at a high school were killed.

But while Hennessey’s proposal – swiftly rejected by the Republican Senate earlier this year – has a better chance with Democratic majorities, it faces a likely veto from Gov. Chris Sununu, who came out against the proposal in the spring.

Gun control advocates aren’t the only ones with designs on reform. Gun rights advocates have submitted a few bill requests of their own – though none so far as expansive as some seen in the last biennium, which included a “constitutional carry” bill to expand concealed carry and a bill to allow firearms on college campuses.

Instead, Boscawen Rep. Robert Forsythe, a Republican, has put forward a proposal to establish a voluntary program in New Hampshire’s schools to teach firearm and hunting safety. Forsythe is also pressing for increased hunting rights that adhere to wildlife conservation and management.

Some bill requests revive familiar battles, both large and small. Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, has again submitted a request to change Columbus Day – Oct. 14 – to Indigenous People’s Day after concerns surrounding the Italian explorer’s history of genocide. A similar bill was pushed to interim study by the House this year, but not before emotional testimony from all sides.

Barrington Rep. Cassandra Levesque, a Democrat, finds herself in a notable position: after championing a bill to raise the marriage age to 16 earlier this year as an 18-year-old advocate, she can do the same as a newly-elected representative. Levesque’s bill request would raise the minimum age for marriage further, likely to 18.

Meanwhile, pet issues are plenty. Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican, is bringing back a proposal to allow hobby distillation of liquor, while Reps. Ken Weyler and Lynne Ober, two Republican Finance Committee stalwarts, are pushing to reduce the interest and dividends tax down to zero over five years.

Cushing, a prolific LSR producer, has re-submitted a proposal for death penalty repeal, a heartfelt and hardfought issue for Cushing, whose father’s murder 30 years ago turned him into a national advocate against the practice. Both chambers of the Legislature passed a repeal bill this year for the first time since 2000, but advancing it around Gov. Sununu’s veto pen will require a stronger majority in the state Senate this time around.

Other Democrats have kept alive another key priority: a state minimum wage, which this year is being sponsored by Canterbury Rep. Howard Moffett, Portsmouth Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark and others.

At this point the LSR list is incomplete, and with untold future requests pending from lawmakers as they face nearing deadlines, the full picture of what House and Senate lawmakers will tackle in January – and the topics that will dominate – remains unknown.

But the requests so far give a good sense of where lawmakers are heading.

To browse the Legislative Service Requests titles, go to gencourt.state.nh.us and click the link for 2019 LSR’s.

Andrew Gorrill