The more things change …

The legislative session reinforced the basic nature of NH’s state government

The recently (almost) completed legislative session in Concord pointed out some fundamental characteristics of New Hampshire government and reinforced the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Fundamental to understanding New Hampshire’s governmental system is the fact that it was designed to be, and is, weak, and power is spread over several parts of the government, so there has to be consensus in order to get things done in any major way. With a 400-member House, 24-member Senate, two-year-term governor and relatively powerful Executive Council, getting anything done here takes real persuasion and a “head of steam.” Especially in times of split party control, as now, this is a real challenge.

The current session demonstrated that in several ways.

Gov. Chris Sununu exercised the powers of his office in key ways. He presented his budget, gave his State of the State address, used his powers of persuasion in the press and with the Legislature, and, most importantly, threatened, and in many cases used, the veto. These, along with his power to appoint officeholders, most visible in his recent nomination of a new chief justice of the Supreme Court, summarize the power of his office.

Even as the sole part of government in the hands of the Republican Party, these powers were substantial, even in an office that is among the weakest governorships in the nation. The veto threat, in fact, led to much action in the Legislature that would not have occurred had the Democrats controlled the corner office.

The House and Senate, while in the control of Democrats, acted differently, as they traditionally have. After the House passed its budget — far different from the one proposed by the governor — the Senate passed its own version, under the guidance of veteran Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.

The two versions of the budget were considered by a conference committee, which was very aware of the veto threat by the governor, and removed several of the signature proposals that were key Democratic promises — paid family leave and a capital gains tax to fund increased funding for education and other programs, both of which the governor opposed.

However, the committee left in suspension reductions in business taxes, branded a “tax increase” by the governor, who vetoed the budget. This sets up an impasse for the summer, requiring the Legislature to return in September to seek additional compromises.

The process shows something fundamental to our system: Compromise, even on issues held dear by those in the majority, sometimes has to occur in order to recognize reality. Also, the veto is a powerful weapon, but should be used sparingly to avoid it being deemed a challenge to the legislative branch, even by members of the governor’s party.

In other actions, the Legislature demonstrated its respect for what the late U.S. Sen. John McCain called, in the congressional context, “regular order.” That is, doing things by the rules, especially in considering legislation. A prime example of that this year in Concord was in connection with a relatively innocuous bill that proposed to allow anyone who applied and paid a $30 fee to get a one-time license to perform a marriage. That bill sailed through the House with little or no opposition and reached the Senate.

In the Senate, a non-germane amendment to the bill was added concerning retired Supreme Court judges being allowed to be named to court panels when sitting judges had to recuse themselves. While an admirable proposal, the amendment had nothing to do with the underlying marriage performance bill. The amendment passed in the Senate, but when presented to the committee of conference, it was rejected, and the bill died, because the process failed to observe legislative procedure, which requires proposals to have public hearings and consideration in the normal order. It was disappointing to those proposing both the marriage bill and the judicial proposal, but is a good example to legislators on how laws should be adopted.

Even with a new set of players, this year’s action in Concord reinforced the basic nature of our unique New Hampshire government, for better or worse.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord