State House Dome: Closely divided House gets off to smooth start

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Jan. 7—WITH ONLY A FEW bumps, the closely divided House was able to get through its massive pile of leftover bills last week.

The work was done in two days with 15 hours of debate, negating the need for a third scheduled session.

This allows both the House committees to spend all of next week taking testimony on hundreds of bills.

How did they possibly get it done?

First, teamwork by House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, and Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester, who agreed in nearly every case to strictly limit the number of speakers on each side of a debate.

Then, cooperation by rank-and-file members.

With a single voice vote, the House acted on 170 of the 249 bills before them by adopting its consent calendar — a list of bills not subject to debate.

The five bills pulled off the consent agenda were dispatched in less than 30 minutes at the end of Thursday's meeting.

Finally, members ducked division and chaos by putting legislation on the table.

The House pushed 15 bills off to limbo, including nine from the House Education Committee.

Proof every vote counts

On Wednesday, House Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, cast the deciding vote, 189-188, to kill a bill making low-income families automatically eligible for free and reduced lunch if they are on Medicaid (HB 601).

The speaker or member holding the gavel at the time — in this case, Smith — only votes to break a tie.

First-term Rep. Candace Gibbons, D-Manchester, lamented her mandatory absence.

"All the votes I missed hit hard, but this one hit the hardest. If I would've been there, it would have been 189-188-FOR the FRL (free and reduced lunch); the speaker wouldn't have had a tie to break, and the kids would get their lunches," she posted on X.

"This was the worst week to have COVID. Worst week."

On Thursday, 12 lawmakers were absent, seven ill and five out on "important business."

Mass migration

Although not in the top 10, New Hampshire ranked above average for number of people moving here vs. leaving the state, according to the 47th annual movers study by United Van Lines.

Vermont was No. 1 in the nation, with 65% of their moves being into the Green Mountain State. New Jersey was last, with 65% of them outbound.

New Hampshire's 54% inbound moves was third-best in the Northeast. Massachusetts was seventh-worst, with 57% of its moves outbound.

GOP candidate for governor Kelly Ayotte pounced on that one.

"The misguided, left-wing policies that my opponents would bring North to NH are causing Massachusetts residents to flee their high-tax, high-crime sanctuary state," Ayotte said.

"Don't MASS up New Hampshire — let's win in November and keep our state safe, prosperous and free!"

Both Democratic candidates for governor fired back. Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington of Concord and former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig's campaign spokesperson Craig Brown again slammed Ayotte's Senate votes to defund Planned Parenthood.

Polling on the outside

Every four years, Dick Bennett at Manchester's American Research Group manages to come up with numbers that forecast tighter races in the New Hampshire primary than the traditional survey centers (Saint Anselm and University of New Hampshire) weeks before the vote.

ARG's Thursday poll had former President Donald Trump ahead here by only 4 points over Nikki Haley, 37% to 33%, with 10% for Chris Christie, 5% for Ron DeSantis and 4% for Vivek Ramaswamy. Meanwhile, the other polls still give Trump a solid double-digit advantage.

Americans for Prosperity, a giant, fiscally conservative interest group backing Haley, has for weeks hyped an earlier outlier ARG poll showing Haley within the margin of error with Trump here.

Trump called it a "fake poll" and said Gov. Chris Sununu will fall flat in his bid to carry Haley over the finish line

Despite dismissing the results, the Trump campaign brain trust is well aware that if this race appears close, it will make it easier for them to crank up an impressive, get-out-the-vote contact machine.

That's because even "soft" Trump supporters will believe there's too much at stake to sit this one out.

Some Dems to debate

On Monday morning, the two major Democrats on the primary ballot, Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and California author Marianne Williamson, will debate at the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Manchester.

New England College is sponsoring the event.

The ARG poll found President Joe Biden's write-in campaign has a solid lead with 58%, compared to 21% for Phillips and 5% for Williamson, 2% for "other" and 14% undecided.

The Biden campaign continues to send surrogates to New Hampshire to motivate the liberal base, which rejected Biden in 2020 and embraced U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, in two straight primaries.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey was the latest to take part in a virtual organizing event, following Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzger and New Jersey Sen. and 2020 presidential candidate Cory Booker.

Four special elections

Voters in three districts will fill vacancies in the New Hampshire House and select nominees for a fourth on the day of the presidential primary.

House Republicans failed to get a single candidate to file for the seat left by the resignation of Rep. Robin Vogt, D-Portsmouth, who moved out of the district last month.

As a result, Democrats will pick this one up Jan. 23 with an interesting tangle between former 12-term State Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts and public health researcher Jennifer Mandelbaum.

Cali-Pitts narrowly lost to Vogt in a 2022 primary in the district that includes Portsmouth Ward 1 and Newington.

Both parties are fighting hard in the North Country to replace ex-Rep.Troy Merner, R-Lancaster, who resigned after prosecutors charged him with falsely claiming to reside there, and Rep. Bill Hatch, D-Gorham, who stepped aside for health reasons.

Democrats are bullish about Cathleen Fountain of Dalton, who finished 270 votes behind Merner in November 2022. The GOP is pointing to a strong primary win last month by Sean Durkin of Northumberland.

In Hatch's old district, Democrats have former Rep. Edith Tucker of Randolph, who left the House to unsuccessfully run for the state Senate last year.

Republicans counter with Michael Murphy of Gorham, the largest town in that district.

Also on Jan. 23, Democrats will choose a nominee to replace the late Rep. Hoy Robert Menear III, who passed away last month.

Three-term Rep. and retired UNH professor Jeff Salloway is favored. He stepped right up a year after he chose not to run again.

He is opposed by Erik Johnson, who sits on several town boards.

The winner in this deep-blue district faces off on March 12 against Joseph Bazo of Madbury.

Danville moderator quits

In a surprise move, John Chandler, moderator of the town of Danville, has stepped down after the Board of Selectmen voted 4-1 last month to require all ballots be counted by hand.

Chandler said Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Shawn O'Neil and Selectman Dennis Griffiths had questioned his authority and made his staying on untenable.

"Because the board did not wish to include me in their discussion of a hand-count, and the board members have individually shown disdain, contempt, and arrogance, I feel it is best to step down before the next event ..." Chandler wrote.

State senators stay out

With 16 days before the vote, most GOP senators are neutral on the candidates in the state's presidential primary, despite Sununu's support for Haley.

Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, predicted to "Good Morning New Hampshire" with Jack Heath that Trump would defeat Haley in the range of "40%-to-30/32%."

Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, was one of the latest to confirm he would not be picking sides.

With Sununu deciding against a fifth term, some GOP state senators who might want an alternative to Trump realize endorsing someone else could buy them a primary challenge from a pro-Trump activist in September.

House Dems bounce indy

To no one's surprise, the Hillsborough County delegation voted, 54-48, to oust Rep. Maria Perez, I-Milford, from its Executive Committee to enable Democrats to name one of their own to the post.

Perez, a leading Hispanic activist in the state, left the party in protest over party actions on immigration and other issues to become one of three House independents.

House Democrats argued they had the right to partisan-proportional representation on the county's governing body.

Rep. Jordan Ulery, R-Hudson, said it was a revenge-filled act since Perez continues to vote with House Democrats on most matters.

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Judge pick in partisan limboNew Hampshire federal prosecutor Seth Aframe appears on course to win Senate confirmation as judge on the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, but Senate GOP leaders are doing their best to delay the inevitable.

Aframe was one of nine nominees the Senate GOP sent back to the White House last week, forcing Biden to bring them back.

The Senate Judiciary Committee already has voted, 11-10, to confirm Aframe. One judicial analyst called the stalling tactic another "stick in Biden's eye."

Drug equipment dispute

The House has tossed a hot potato to the state Senate — a bill (HB 470) to expand state law to allow for testing the next generation of dangerous opioids.

In 2023, lawmakers put fentanyl and xylazine test strips into state law.

Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, said this new bill is needed to deal with "emerging" new threats to citizens' health.

House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman Terry Roy, R-Deerfield, broke against his own panel over a provision that allows testers to carry up to 10 mg of any chemical substance.

"The amount of drugs authorized in this bill would kill 500 people," Roy charged.

The House passed the bill with solid bipartisan support, 212-161.

Martha Fuller Clark portraitA state Senate panel quickly endorsed, 5-0, a bill (SB 331) to accept and hang in the State House a portrait honoring former Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth.

The measure had 16 of 24 state senators on the bill, as well as bipartisan House support.

Last year, there was some House pushback to a portrait honoring the late state Rep. and human rights leader Rogers Johnson, R-Stratham, but ultimately it got tucked into the global deal on the state budget.

Grand dame backs Ayotte

Former 10-term Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth endorsed Ayotte's bid for governor.

"Kelly Ayotte has been a lifelong friend and associate. I trust her for New Hampshire without any hesitation. Kelly has the backbone and lots of strength behind her to get the job done," Griffin said in a statement.

Cold War leader recalled

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, paid tribute last week to Maj. Gen. Roland LaJoie, who coordinated U.S.-Soviet relations during the last decade of the Cold War, which resulted in the destruction of nuclear weapons on both sides.

A University of New Hampshire graduate, LaJoie, 87, passed away last fall after complications from heart surgery.

"This man had much to do with assuring there was peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union," D'Allesandro said.

Kevin Landrigan is State House Bureau Chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Contact him at klandrigan@unionleader.com.