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Opinion: NH House Ends Ugly

Published Monday Sep 28, 2020

Author GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org

Opinion: NH House Ends Ugly

The last day of the 2019-2020 legislative term for the House ended much as it has progressed over the two years.

After two years of Republican rule in Concord, Democrats won both the House and Senate with healthy majorities, but not enough to override a veto.

The term has been confrontational from the beginning, fueled by social media posts, partisan politics and a collective GOP attempt to halt the majority’s agenda.

The two years were certainly not smooth sailing for new speaker Stephen Shurtleff as he tried to keep a lid on a teapot ready to boil.

There were many incendiary devices thrown into the combustible mix and some created explosions that reverberated down to the foundation.

What was once unacceptable behavior like attacking fellow lawmakers on the floor became more commonplace.

Social media became a hammer to bully other House members if you disagreed with the policies or wanted to question their patriotism.

Shurtleff tried to quell the antics but it was not easy.

None of the escapades put the House in a good light and often led to calls for resignations and more although those doing the accusing were often as guilty as the ones they accused.

The atmosphere was toxic to the point of no return when seven GOP members were reprimanded for failing to attend or submit proof they attended education sessions intended to deal with sexual harassment issues.

The mandatory sessions were approved in rules on a bipartisan vote early in the session. There were others who did not attend, but never were reprimanded as the real world intervened.

And perhaps there were less public ways of punishing the flouting of House rules.

The accused Republicans dragged out the next House session facing a key deadline. The delaying tactics forced the session into the early morning hours of the next day before it ended.

That was the last session the House held for three months as the coronavirus pandemic shut down legislative action.

And when it resumed, Republicans claimed they were left out of the loop, said they were taking their ball and going home by requiring all bills to pass by a two-thirds majority when they refused to change deadlines set before the pandemic.

The intended effect was to shut down House action for the remainder of the year.

The House shutdown served two purposes: to halt the Democrats agenda and create fewer bills for Gov. Chris Sununu to veto coming into an election year, after vetoing almost 60 the year before.

But the Senate had its own ball and worked a little magic to salvage some of the work done this year.

The COVID-19 break only solidified the partisan divide in the House as the GOP voted “No” on almost everything going forward.

Which brings us to the session’s last day to vote on 22 gubernatorial vetoes, nearly one-third of the bills passed by the legislature.

Every veto was sustained as Republicans held ranks and the atmosphere was not conducive to bipartisanship.

The so-called “freedom section” at the Whittemore Center at UNH Wednesday held Republicans who refused to wear masks or shields and 47 of the 400 members signed up for those seats. And just outside the section, 12 empty beers cans were found by the Sgt.-at-Arms which brought a rebuke from Shurtleff along with an apology to UNH for that and for members standing outside Whittemore Center without masks, mandatory on campus and in Durham.

Now the New Hampshire Legislature over the years has had its share of shady characters, bad apples and day drinkers.

Some have even gone to jail for things they did, maybe not as lawmakers, but for what they did when serving.

And over the years, there have been many lawmakers of both parties who spent their lunch break across the street having a few beers or cocktails.

Some members of the old House Appropriations Committee, which used to meet in Room 100 of the State House, spent more than a little time imbibing across Main Street. It was a short walk.

However, the bad behavior was singular in nature, it was not something that was done in a concert with other lawmakers.

On the last day of the session Wednesday, Republicans criticized some Democrats for kneeling during the National Anthem in support of Black Lives Matter. And Democrats were upset with the maskless Republicans who allegedly drank beer, and booed and heckled Democrats.

Last session, some members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee wore pearls during the public hearing on the “red flag” bill to intimidate or mock those speaking in favor of the bill.

Traditionally someone testifying before a committee is shown deference and the chairman or women often halts the give and take between the speaker and committee members when it becomes a debate.

The last two years, the bad behavior has been collective and more resembles out-of-control high school students than representatives of the people of New Hampshire.

You have to wonder what motivates some people to run for the House. Do they want to make the state better, to represent their constituents or to impede the legislative process believing no government is better than what exists?

If that is the case, what do they hope to accomplish outside of disruption?

Much of the decorum and civility has disappeared and for some the goal is purely partisan, often mean-spirited, and a case of my rights are more important than yours.

Where is the greater good?

About 90 percent of House members serve to do the greater good. But a few bad apples are tainting the juice.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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