Legislative lessons at crossover time

The New Hampshire Legislature was under the gun recently as “crossover” loomed. In this even-numbered year, a non-budget year, a disproportionate number of ideological bills have been considered, as legislators have not had to fashion a spending plan.The House surprised observers with some of its actions, and a few principles of legislative life were demonstrated.First, to the surprise of many observers, the House overwhelmingly defeated a bill aimed at repealing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire. In the most conservative House in years, many expected the bill to pass, since a lot of “social” legislation pushed by those on the right already have passed.The proposal, House Bill 437, would have repealed same-sex marriage, which was passed in 2009 and instituted “civil unions” in a different form than existed here prior to 2009. It also would have mandated a referendum on the issue on the November ballot, in a non-binding poll to gauge the opinion of the voters on the issue, assumedly to help the next Legislature know whether the repeal should be kept or same-sex marriage restored.This bill was criticized by proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage, the press, candidates for governor and legislators on both sides of the issue as confusing, inconsistent in calling for a referendum after repeal, and defective in that the form of civil unions restored was deemed confusing.What is the lesson? If bills are to have a chance, they should be clear, understandable and not subject to attack for a number of reasons that various legislators can use as a reason to oppose the bill.HB 437 failed that test. Whether a simple repeal or call for a referendum would have passed is impossible to know, but certainly a simple bill would have left legislators fewer places to hide and fewer excuses in casting their votes. Proponents of repeal promised to revisit the issue.*****Two other legislative actions show the value of the rule that says, in certain circumstances, bills have to be considered by more than one committee to pass the House. HB 1659 is a bill that would have required notice of certain alleged medical ramifications of abortion and, as passed originally by the House, would have imposed a criminal penalty for failure to provide the information.Since there was a criminal penalty, and the House passed the bill without its having been considered by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, as required by the rules, it later was sent to that committee which, after examination, stripped the bill of the criminal penalty.Whether the amended bill is a good idea or not, following the rules had a substantive effect on the bill.Similarly, HB 1692, which would eliminate the office of chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, reduce the number of trustees, and reduce the size of the system office passed the House preliminarily and was required to be referred to the Finance Committee as it had fiscal ramifications (indeed, the fiscal note claimed it would increase costs by millions of dollars due to duplication on individual campuses of functions of the system office that would be eliminated).At the Finance Committee, as of this writing, amendments to the bill have been proposed that would substantially change it by deleting the elimination of the chancellor, the reduction in trustees and changing the bill in a number of other respects, while keeping certain provisions claimed to help keep tuition under control. If the amended bill is the resulting one, it will show the effectiveness of additional consideration by a second committee, although it still should be defeated as inappropriate meddling in matters better left to the USNH trustees.Finally, the latest incarnation of casino gambling legislation, HB 593, hotly debated and well-lobbied by wealthy out-of-state interests, was defeated by the House by a convincing margin on March 28.This year, the bill provided for four casinos, and had the twist of calling for the reduction of business taxes to very low rates, at least at first when the license fees for the casinos would create substantial one-time income.House Republican leadership, at least in part, supported the bill, although Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, led the opposition, demonstrating admirable consistency in his opposition to this still-lousy proposal.Despite the argument that the times had changed due to actions of neighboring states, the supposed advantage of lower taxes, and support of a couple of police organizations that previously had opposed expanded gambling, the bill was defeated handily, 195-154. The promise of Governor Lynch to veto the bill probably helped contribute to its defeat, and the group of organizations opposed to casino gambling, heavily outspent and out-lobbied, could only hope that this was the last gasp of a bad idea. However, observers would not bet on it!Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.