State House Dome: Pot legalization at critical point

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May 10—PROSPECTS FOR passage of legislation to legalize marijuana use by adults in New Hampshire have gotten worse, not better in recent weeks.

A rewrite by Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, narrowly made it through committee and now faces an uncertain future in the upper chamber.

Abbas has said his proposal is the only one that can get to 13 votes and clear the Senate.

The real question is whether — if this bill ends up limping out in any form — the bipartisan team of House members leading the charge go along with it rather than risk having the campaign fall apart in a conference committee.

At the same time, Gov. Chris Sununu is giving off an indifferent vibe about the legislation.

"I don't really love this idea anyway," Sununu said recently.

"I have a responsibility of setting up for the long term the best system that we can have. We have a great chance to get it better than anyone else."

Those close to the governor say privately that this bill has the one thing Sununu has never wanted — a new tax.

Both the House-passed bill and the Abbas Senate proposal call it an excise fee, but it's a tax by another name.

Supporters have crafted it so the fee/tax is collected early in the supply chain, before it reaches the consumer.

Sununu takes great pride in not only having cut some taxes and eliminated others, but in not signing any new ones.

The cannabis bill would be a big change, which should be factored in as the issue showdown approaches.

Surprise gun vote

Late action by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday has raised the temperature of the legislative session's closing weeks.

The panel voted, 3-2, to recommend killing a bipartisan bill (HB 1711) named after slain hospital security officer Bradley Haas that would close a loophole in what information New Hampshire shares with the federal criminal background check system.

The bill authorizes adding to the background check system the names of those who are involuntarily committed or judged not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial.

"GOP members of the NH Senate Judiciary Committee today cynically sold their souls to the most misinformed people in the gun lobby," said Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, and one of the architects of the bill, along with House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman Terry Roy, R-Deerfield.

"I thought we had a good bipartisan agreement," said Roy, who declared it could not be "any more bipartisan — we aren't taking anyone's guns away."

Rep. JR Hoell, R-Dunbarton, an officer in the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, praised Republican members for resisting what critics consider a gun confiscation bill.

"We had all of the gun groups in the state and nationally united in opposition to this. I really feel like that is going to have an impact," said Executive Councilor Dave Wheeler, R-Milford, heavily involved in the lobbying effort.

The bill now heads to the full Senate. If things go the same way there, it could lead to more bill hostage-taking as the session nears an end.

"Really feels like the Senate only exists to stop the good work coming out of the House," Rep. Alissandra Murray, D-Manchester, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

House starts piling on

In that vein, the New Hampshire House of Representatives already is laying the groundwork for attempts to resurrect legislation that the Senate has killed or relegated to study.

The House voted to revive a bill (HB 1115) from Rep. Robert Lynn that adds the expiration of a lease as grounds for a tenant's eviction.

This past week, Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, praised his colleagues for dismissing it.

Now it's back, as Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, broke a tie to add it to a PFAS contamination bill (SB 413).

Rep eyed for Senate

Now that Coos County Sheriff Brian Valerino has passed on running for the state Senate in District 1, Republican activists are encouraging Rep. David Rochefort, R-Littleton, to jump into the race.

In his first term, Rochefort has impressed GOP leaders while serving on the House Ways and Means Committee.

As a pharmacist, he also is plugged into one of the most politically active medical groups, which could gain him campaign finance support.

Sen. Carrie Gendreau, R-Littleton, has not publicly announced whether she will seek a second term.

Revenue warning signs

The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute issued a report warning that while the state retains a healthy budget surplus, it may not be sustainable over time.

The report's takeaways noted that business taxes through April were $38 million less than at this time a year ago, though they are performing according to the forecast of state budget writers.

Much of the surplus is attributed to a massive increase in money earned on cash reserves. New Hampshire had $2.1 billion in cash last month, which was $517 million more than in March 2019, the report said.

The earlier period included the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Hampshire, like all state governments, racked up significant profits through interest earned on billions in federal COVID-19 relief money before they had to spend it all.

The state is on course for another huge state budget surplus on June 30, said Sununu, who was celebrating New Hampshire's recent second-place rating in USA Today's Best States survey.

Ed grant expansion

Legislation to expand the number of families eligible to receive taxpayer-funded education grants, one of Sununu's top priorities for this session, could be another victim of House-Senate unrest.

The House passed by a single vote a bill to raise eligibility for Education Freedom Accounts from 350% to 500% of the federal poverty level, which would enable a family of four making up to $150,000 to qualify.

This past week, a Senate panel voted to replace it with the Senate's proposal, which would raise it to 400% of the federal poverty level.

House conservatives wanted the Senate to concur with what they had passed, so this wouldn't have to go back to the House for another vote.

That's not going to happen, and both sides are bracing for another close one back in the House.

Ed funding bills

Sununu said he is not a fan of legislation to dramatically increase state aid to education in response to ongoing constitutional lawsuits headed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court on appeal.

This past week, the Senate Education Committee recommended for interim study a bill that House Education Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, championed to create three tiers of grants to school districts based on their special education costs.

Another House-passed bill that would increase the per-pupil grants to all districts appears headed for the same fate.

Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, said both bills should wait until work on the next two-year state budget in the spring of 2025. Lawmakers should not do anything until and unless the Supreme Court rules that the current system is unconstitutional, he said.

LGBTQ community battle

Another week means another pitched battle over legislation that the LGBTQ community considers an attack on it.

Advocates had scored a major victory in the New Hampshire House when they secured a bipartisan vote to kill a Senate-passed bill (SB 341) on the mandatory disclosure of information to parents who ask about their children.

Five days later, the Senate Education Committee handed them a bigger setback by endorsing, 3-1, a House-passed bill (HB 1312) requiring educators to inform parents in advance about material regarding LGBTQ topics, as well as requiring notification about children's well-being.

If the full Senate goes along with that recommendation, HB 1312 will go to Sununu, who has declined to get into the tall grass on the subject other than to say he supports a parent's right to know.

Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-Lebanon, said the bill struck was a political statement, because parents already have the right to ask and to have school officials communicate with them.

Senate Education Chairman Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, said there's clearly a need for this.

"My gut feeling is times have changed and what was easy with us to get hold of information, that part has changed dramatically," Ward said. "Some parents have a hard time getting any information. It is unfortunate but apparently that is the way it is right now."

Craig's labor support

The American Postal Workers Union Local 230 in Manchester joined labor groups backing former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig's Democratic primary bid for governor.

The move comes as the congressional delegation fights postal service plans to dramatically change the mission of the Manchester postal center, which includes deliveries coming from the Boston region.

This makes 16 unions that are backing Craig. Primary rival and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington of Concord has only a few. One of the unions backing Warmington is the State Employees Association, the largest labor group of government workers in New Hampshire.

Concord firefighters are backing Warmington. Rep. Jessica LaMontagne, D-Dover, also announced her support for Warmington.

Bill's cloudy future

House Democratic Floor Leader Lucy Weber of Walpole and Rep. Maureen Mooney, R-Merrimack, have been campaigning for legislation to show where legislation is in real time.

In this State House, once a bill is passed, it's often weeks or even a few months before it gets signed into law or vetoed.

After passage, every bill must be signed by enrolled committee members in both legislative bodies and by the House speaker and Senate president before heading to the governor.

The bill the pair is championing (HB 1309) would require Secretary of State David Scanlan's office to publish on its website each bill's current status and precise location.

The House passed it on the consent calendar on a voice vote without debate

The Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee, however, has recommended killing it, 4-1.

Senate leaders from both parties said there are times a bill needs to be held up at the request of a governor, who may want more time to review it before it goes to his/her desk.

Candidates join protest

1st Congressional District Republican candidates Hollie Noveletsky of Greenland and former Executive Councilor Russell Prescott of Kingston joined counter-protesters in supporting Israel at a demonstration on the campus of the University of New Hampshire.

Noveletsky brought cookies to the small gathering.

She also announced plans to make her second trip to the northern border after releasing her proposed border policy and producing her first digital ad on the topic.

Children forums begin

On Thursday, Warmington kicked off a series of four forums hosted by the Save the Children Action Network with major gubernatorial candidates at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

GOP candidate and Senate President Chuck Morse followed on Friday. GOP rival Kelly Ayotte is set to speak on Monday, followed by Craig on Tuesday.

Democratic candidate and Newmarket restaurant owner Jon Kiper didn't make the cut.

Quote of the week

Massachusetts Gov. "Maura Healey bragging about cutting taxes: That's like me bragging about having a salad. We all know it is followed by a sleeve of Oreos."

— Gov. Chris Sununu

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