Cook On Concord: House amendment vote confuses and irritates

Rep. Andrew Peterson, a Peterborough Republican, is a very good fellow – smart, moderate, thoughtful. He comes from a distinguished New Hampshire family steeped in public service. He takes policy issues seriously.

On June 6, in my judgment, Representative Peterson made a big mistake.

Here is what happened: CACR 18, the constitutional amendment proposed by Governor Lynch to “solve” the education-funding problem and allow targeted aid, passed the Senate in April with the requisite 60 percent vote. When the amendment got to the House, the finance committee, led by Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat, studied it, held a public hearing and five full committee work sessions, and reported an amended version of the amendment to the full House for consideration.

The revised version met most, but not all, objections raised about the original amendment. Governor Lynch endorsed the revised version.

Watching the proceedings, observers expected a long and arduous debate with an opportunity for all sides to present their arguments and various amendments to be considered.

After Smith took the floor and presented the amendment, debate took place and, by a roll-call vote, the committee’s proposal failed, receiving only 108 votes, with 253 opposed. Almost all of the Republicans in the House voted against, and they were joined by many Democrats.

Failure to pass the amendment meant that the underlying Senate-passed constitutional amendment remained on the floor. Observers expected many more amendments, much debate and a thorough discussion of the issue.

Enter Peterson. Stepping to the microphone, he made a motion to “indefinitely postpone” the bill. What this means is that, if adopted, the amendment and any similar bill could not be taken up by the Legislature until 2009, unless two-thirds of the members vote to waive the rules.

There was some discussion, most notably by Minority Leader Michael Whalley, urging defeat of the motion so the discussion could take place and other amendments offered. But Peterson’s motion passed, 187-176. After a lunch break the House reconvened and defeated a motion for reconsideration, 209-154.

Why was this a mistake? It was a mistake because this issue has been festering for a long time, was a top priority of the governor and deserved full discussion by the House, whose 400 members are elected to deal with tough issues, not duck them.

Peterson later indicated that he wanted the amendment postponed because he thought the amendment a distraction and was not the right way to deal with the education-funding issue. He also expressed surprise that his motion passed.

Whatever the merits of his logic, he could have made his arguments about how to solve the problem in the debate about the amendment. Many observers have noted that a vote against the amendment rather than a vote for indefinite postponement at least would have expressed the wishes of the House on the subject substantively. It is unlikely anything would have received 60 percent.

While observers thought the amendment was dead with the adoption of the indefinite postponement motion, the next day the Senate voted to suspend its rules and allow the introduction of a new constitutional amendment, CACR 19, which was heard by a Senate committee on June 13 and, by a 3-2 vote, was reported to the full Senate. This new amendment tracked the version of the amendment House Republicans had planned to offer had the debate continued in the House.

As of this writing, the fate of CACR 19 in the Senate is not known, and it is doubtful that the House will consider it at least until the House meets again the last week of June, when it has a lot of other things to do, if at all. Reports in the press indicated that House members had little appetite for taking up the constitutional amendment again when they had so many other things to deal with.

Among those things yet to be dealt with is House Bill 1, the state budget and HB 2, the budget trailing bill, which have passed the House and Senate in different versions and will be the subject of a conference committee to work out the differences and arrive at a final state budget — usually the biggest item on the agenda of the Legislature in the first year of a biennium.

Where does that leave New Hampshire? It leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths because there was no full vetting of the constitutional amendment issue. It also leaves the state and its Supreme Court with no solution legislatively to the school-funding matter, making many wonder how long it will take the court to order the next step, which reportedly is the appointment of a special master or referral of the matter to a judge to cost out an “adequate education” for the Legislature, since the Legislature has not done so for itself.

Whatever the outcome, the House of Representatives did not distinguish itself on June 6.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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