Child marriage, Sununu Center, divisive concepts lead early 2023 hearings

Jan. 9—CONCORD — Bills to raise the legal age to marry, close the Sununu Youth Services Center and repeal a controversial anti-discrimination law in public schools highlight the first week of hearings in the 2023 legislative session.

Since 2018, three-term state Rep. Cassandra Levesque, D-Barrington, has led the campaign to ban child marriage.

In 2019, Gov. Chris Sununu signed her law, which raised the age from 13 and 14 for girls and boys, respectively, to 16, but Levesque has always sought to extend that ban to 18 years.

The House Children and Family Law Committee will take testimony on her latest legislation (HB 34) Tuesday.

The bill's fate in the House is uncertain given how closely divided the House of Representatives is, with 201 Republicans, 197 Democrats and two vacancies.

GOP leaders traditionally have opposed the idea, maintaining that so few teens get married in New Hampshire that it's not necessary.

In the past three years, there were 10 marriages of 17-year-olds in the state. In 2020 there were none.

But Levesque said 80% of marriages among children end in divorce, and keeping the current law makes it legal for men to exploit young girls, especially undocumented immigrants.

Support for later deadline

Senate Republican leaders are backing a plan to delay the closing of the Sununu Youth Services Center.

Under current law, the corrections/treatment facility for troubled juveniles has to close by March 1, but the Sununu administration and legislative leaders from both parties agree that deadline cannot possibly be met.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, is the chief author of the plan (SB 1) to move the closure date out to no later than Nov. 1, 2024.

The measure created a $15 million budget for the opening of the replacement center, which would have 12 beds and the capability to expand to 18.

The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated it will cost $3 million to design and $22 million to complete construction of a new treatment complex.

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, is offering a similar bill (HB 120) that sets a June 1, 2024 deadline to close the Sununu Center, with the governor and Legislative Fiscal Committee empowered to keep it open for another two years if needed.

State agency officials and union leaders said the uncertainty over the future of the Sununu Center led to some leaving the job, which has forced the state to send in other state employees to work there.

Last fall there were several injuries to staff, with union leaders warning conditions had become more dangerous as staff had been required to work overtime shifts.

Anti-discrimination law suits continue

The 2021 two-year state budget included a ban on teaching discrimination in public schools.

Rep. Peter Petrigno, D-Milford and a former Teacher of the Year, will testify Thursday on his bill (HB 61) to repeal the law, which some advocates had referred to as a ban on divisive concepts.

The state's two largest teachers unions and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire brought federal lawsuits seeking to strike down the law, maintaining it is unconstitutional.

Opponents have said the law has forced teachers to stop using certain materials for fear they could lose their licenses to work in the classroom.

Supporters said the law makes certain that students in K-12 schools are not taught topics such as Critical Race Theory, which states America's social justice system is inherently racist.