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Crunch time for the Legislature

One newspaper column over the weekend had this headline: “We are about to enter either crunch time or the world series of lawmaking, depending on your perspective.”

The writer has it right. Both the House and the Senate finished their last regular sessions last Thursday, and now we are on to the committees of conference process.

For the Senate, Thursday’s session started at the regular time, and we finished up around 5:30 p.m., one of our longest sessions of the year. It was also our final session to vote up or down on bills that have gone through the committee process. Every bill that was introduced this year has had a public hearing and a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.

The bills the Senate dealt with on Thursday were all bills that had started and been passed in the House. That was no guarantee House bills would be passed by the Senate. For example, a bill (House Bill 286) to enable municipalities to bond the costs of building out broadband infrastructure was sent to interim study, which means it is dead for 2014. Another House-passed bill, HB 138 — dealing with mergers and consolidations of telecommunications companies — was outright killed on the Senate floor. Those two bills, like many others on Thursday, were voted on by Senators on voice votes.

There were a series of roll call votes, too. Some were to simply affirm public support of a bill, such as funding for a pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner training program. The Finance Committee had not wanted to open up the budget passed last year and spend the requested $20,000 on this program. Testimony during the committee process told us there was only one trained nurse in this field in New Hampshire. A majority of the Finance Committee had voted against doing anything this year, but I was able to bring forward an amendment allowing the Governor to find the $20,000 in the next biennium, thus moving the program forward but not opening up the current budget. Every Senator wanted to be on board, and the vote was 24-0 in favor.

There was a lot of amending at our session, too. Senate bills that the House had killed or changed dramatically caused a response from involved Senators. As an example, Senator Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro brought an amendment to the floor dealing with notice of zoning hearings. Sounds pretty tame, but the House has already killed Bradley’s language that was part of another bill. The N.H. Municipal Association, in their weekly Legislative Bulletin, said the Bradley amendment language “will be a disaster for municipalities.” If this goes to a committee of conference, there will be plenty of attention, as the underlying bill (HB 1210) is important for the Department of Revenue Administration.

HB 1210 also was amended with language legalizing a vote in the town of Hanover for a school district bond on March 4. The amendment helps the school district, as certain provisions of the law were not met in the notice and conduct of the vote. The Legislature is making an exception for that one vote in Hanover, as it did with two other communities earlier this year.

The House leadership can decide whether or not to give up the Hanover and Department of Revenue provisions in order to kill Senator Bradley’s zoning notice amendment. Or, they can call for a committee of conference.

This week, we will be focused on the creation of committees of conference and the resolution of differences on bills between House and Senate positions. It will be crunch time over the next three weeks, with lawmaking at its best and possibly, from time to time, at a much lower standard. But, in the New Hampshire way, we will get through it and head home for the summer in early June.

Bills coming to the Senate floor are either on the consent calendar or regular calendar. Bills can go on the consent calendar only if all members of the committee working on the bill are present, are unanimous in their recommendation and agree to put a bill on the consent calendar. The Senate takes one voice vote on all the consent calendar bills. While the consent calendar has only been in place for a couple of years, it has certainly speeded things up during Senate sessions.

For the regular calendar, the practice is for committee chairs to ask a committee member to “take a bill out,” which means the Senator reads a statement on the floor about why his or her colleagues should support the committee position on the bill. Staff members prepare the brief statements and, when read on the floor, they become part of the legislative record. On controversial issues, the floor statements set the stage for the debate to follow.

On Thursday, I “took out” several bills, including my last one, HB 1415, which deals with a fund for robotics education. It reminded me of how traditional some of the day-to-day, routine Senate tasks are and how they hold the legislative process together. Taking bills out on the floor is a bit of fun, too.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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