Cook On Concord: Two significant bills emerging from process
One of the most significant events on the legislative calendar is the so-called “crossover,” when the Senate and House each have to complete work on those bills on which they are going to take action and, for those that pass, send them to the other body for action.
This year, two of the significant bills acted on in the House were House Bill 523, concerning lobbying, and HB 437, the civil unions bill.
HB 437 passed the House and was passed by the Senate on April 26. This bill, proposed by Rep. James Splaine of Portsmouth, provides the rights contained in the marriage statute to two men obtaining a civil union or two women obtaining a civil union. It also provides them access to the divorce statute in the event dissolution is sought, and has a provision recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriage or civil unions in New Hampshire as civil unions to the extent they are consistent with our law.
When the Senate passed the statute, a fundamental change in New Hampshire law and society occurred. Up to this time, marriage had been for one man and one woman, and there was no equivalent for others. New Hampshire now joins those states engaging in what many consider to be a social experiment that is fundamentally wrong and others believe to be a matter of fairness and equal rights.
I agree with those who think this bill’s passing was not only unnecessary, but a serious mistake. The interesting political aspect of watching the process was seeing the evolution of Governor Lynch’s position on the matter.
Admittedly, this issue is not one that politicians look for, since it is so controversial. It was not prominent on Lynch’s public agenda. In his campaign for re-election, the governor indicated that he was not for same-sex marriage, favored a commission to study the issue in depth (as opposed to with loud voices and yelling, like the last attempt at a commission) and only after the commission acted would he consider whether to endorse a bill.
When the civil unions bill passed the House, the Governor was silent for some time. Finally, he indicated that if the bill passed the Senate, which was likely, he would sign it. What many opponents had hoped was that the governor would stick to his previously stated position of wanting a study before taking a position.
After the governor signs the measure, New Hampshire will have a law that is much simpler and less nuanced than civil union laws in other states. The question is how many legal challenges, legal issues and details will have to be worked out and what the political fallout for the governor and those who voted for the bill will be.
HB 523, a bill to amend the lobbyist regulation law, seeks to clarify and remove some of the complexities that were put in that law last year by a so-called “Executive Branch Ethics” bill. Last year, the Legislature passed a very complex piece of legislation that, among other things, required that anyone working for an employer and appearing at the Legislature or executive branch agency on the employer’s behalf, register as a lobbyist.
Given the nature of the definition of lobbying in the statute, that caused a lot of angst among not-for-profit and other organizations. The law’s provision requiring registration by those contacting the executive branch created a huge amount of confusion and complexity. Further, the law required duplicate reporting by lobbyists of campaign contributions and honorariums given to legislators or members of the executive branch even though they are required to report such things in their own filings.
After the law was passed, there was recognition of the complexities and the fact that the law had, in a sense, made people seeking help from the government into the servants of the government rather than legislators into the servants of the people.
A working group was assembled, largely by not-for-profit organizations, and, working with Rep. Elizabeth Hager of Concord, came up with a proposed change in the law. Many committee meetings were held, and the bill was changed with the help of the attorney general’s office and input from many others with problems with the existing law.
The bill passed the House on a voice vote and headed for the Senate. It was heard in the Senate in April and is currently being studied there by the Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee. The committee will consider the bill and another amendment, designed to correct a provision of the law as passed, that required volunteers who work with the Fish and Game Department in stocking ponds and rivers with fish to file and make disclosures since they are then “volunteers” working with the executive branch!
Often, legislators seeking to enforce “ethics” get that confused with “bureaucracy.”
Hopefully, this bill will be fixed and it will be a little easier for the people to petition their government.
CACR 18, the constitutional amendment designed to solve the school-funding issue and allow targeted aid, passed the Senate with the minimum number required for the 60 percent vote. In the House, its future is uncertain, and many groups have been speaking up for and against the amendment.
It will be fascinating to see the process of trying to line up 60 percent in the 400-member House of Representatives. On this one, there is little clarity at this point, although those opposing the amendment should consider what the alternative to passage might prove to be.
Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. His clients include the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester.