Capitol Watch review: ‘Silly season’ for state lawmakers

Posted on May 13, 2012

Nashua Telegraph, May 13, 2012 by Kevin Landrigan

CONCORD – The dominant Republican leaders running the New Hampshire Legislature had high hopes for the 2012 session to cement their standing as budget cutters, anti-taxers and instigators for job growth.

Meanwhile, an election year always brings special-interest groups out of the woodwork trying to get their friends and enemies on the dotted line of hot-button social issues such as guns, abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

On top of that, add the inpatient desires of the 163 freshman House Republicans and the departing wishes of six Senate Republicans and you have all the ingredients of an action-packed close to the 2012 session.

The challenge for those running the House of Representatives and the Senate is to wade through the slog of fights between individual lawmakers on both sides to achieve success on their priorities.

This is no simple task, said Terry Pfaff, a retired firefighter, former House Republican and onetime House chief of staff.

“It sure is the silly season, isn’t it?” Pfaff said upon popping into the Statehouse to look in on old friends.

“If you’re in charge at this time, you have to keep your wits about you, because so much is flying in this direction or that, it’s easy to wake up and find what matters to you most is in ruins.”

The Legislature is approaching what could be called Hell Week in the House and Senate, where there’s a flurry of action, but not a lot gets done. House and Senate leaders, like two raging bulls, mark their territory in advance of financial negotiations on key bills.

The Telegraph’s Capitol Watch project has reported on the blow-by-blow on more than 50 bills, nearly all of them authored or co-sponsored by a member of the House or Senate Republican leadership.

Last week, the deadline came and went for all policy committees from one branch to come up with a recommendation on bills from the other.

The House and Senate will take up and act on all of those findings by Thursday.

And the score sheet at this critical juncture isn’t a pretty one.

Two-thirds of the bills on the Capitol Watch list are roadkill – some killed, but many more given a polite burial such as sent to interim study in the Senate, which means the issue has to start all over as a new measure before a new governor and new Legislature in 2013.

Clearly, the Senate leadership under President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, has been loathe to embrace much of the very conservative social agenda passed to it by the House.

The House adopted seven anti-abortion bills; the Senate has killed or permanently crippled five of them, leaving only a ban on late-term abortions that’s already against federal law and a legislative study into how many abortions in New Hampshire are actually performed.

Eager House GOP members authored 16 bills on loosening restrictions on gun ownership or use; the only one to pass makes it clear that people in a Fish and Game preserve can only be fined if they actually shoot their unauthorized weapon on the premises.

If the Senate killing field has gotten under the skin of House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, he isn’t showing it.

“The House Republican caucus and the Senate Republican caucus share the same underlying values,” O’Brien said during an interview with The Telegraph editorial board.

“We each have different priorities; we each have different ways of playing that out.

“I know the Senate doesn’t want the House to not consider our perspective, and similarly, we are going to make sure our priority makes part of the discussion.

“It’s not so much they are afraid of our agenda. You only should try to come up with a limited number of bills.”

Bragdon echoes O’Brien’s view that the two have a cordial relationship.

Just hours after Bragdon fired off a bitter statement after the House had initially killed a priority bill to ban taxing Internet access, the Senate boss toned down the rhetoric.

“This is the kind of thing that happens at the end of the year,” Bragdon said. “I don’t see it escalating to the point that we’re not able to get things done.”

What’s important to keep in mind is that even a transparency project such as the Capitol Watch can’t reveal every political reality in the Statehouse: No bill is really dead until the gavel comes down on the session.

Consider the one O’Brien wants to see pass that would let any business owner to present a religious objection to having women’s contraception as part of the health insurance plan offered to employees.

The Senate shipped that one to a political purgatory study committee in late April.

But this week, Rep. Daniel Itse, R-Fremont, a member of O’Brien’s leadership team, will ask the House to slap it back onto a meaningless Senate-passed bill (SB 356) on delegates to constitutional conventions.

The Telegraph has identified two dozen bills in the same or near identical form turned aside in the House or Senate that have been resurrected onto unrelated bills in the closing month of this session.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, said it’s little wonder constituents zeroing in on a favorite issue can get tripped up about its status during the dizzying flurry of bills.

“This is one big legislative chess game,” Bettencourt said.

“You can appreciate the public is confused by it sometimes.”

Bettencourt and his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said success at the close of the session requires flexibility, patience and almost a detached personal approach.

“If you keep an even keel and stay open-minded, everything will work out in a positive way,” Bettencourt said.

Posted in: New Hampshire