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N.H. House passes bill to refund COVID fines, in rebuke to governor

Monitor staff
Published: 2/25/2021 4:31:00 PM

The New Hampshire House passed a bill that would refund fines issued to businesses for violating COVID-19 orders, the first successful rebuke of Gov. Chris Sununu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by members of his own party. 

House Bill 63 would stop the state from continuing to enforce one of Sununu’s most significant orders: Executive Order 65, which established fines of up to $1,000 for business owners, property owners or individuals that violate COVID-19 rules and regulations. Those fines have been issued by the Attorney General's office to businesses in recent months; about $10,000 in fines have been issued in total. 

Under the bill, all fines issued to businesses under any of Sununu’s executive orders would need to be voided and refunded, and any licenses that were revoked or suspended would need to be restored.

The legislation would require the annulment of any criminal records related to COVID-19 orders as well.

Supporters said the bill would undo what was an unconstitutional order and allow businesses to move out from under unnecessary financial burdens.

“HB 63 as amended is simply the beginning, the first step in addressing the pain that has been experienced by the businesses and the people over the last year,” said Rep. Chris True,” a Sandown Republican.

But Sununu reacted angrily Wednesday, suggesting that he would veto the bill should it reach his desk.

“We can’t claim to support law and order, then incentivize law-breaking and reward those who do not follow the rules,” the governor said in a statement. “Our reasonable public health guidelines allowed us to keep our economy open. Rewarding the small handful who recklessly thwarted public health and safety after outreach and educational attempts is a complete disservice to the thousands of small businesses who worked tirelessly to keep their employees and customers safe while enabling our economy to stay open for business.” 

The bill passed 188-169, but it must head to the House Finance Committee and then to a second vote on the House floor before it can move on to the Senate.

The legislation was buoyed by a faction of libertarian-minded Republicans, who have attempted in the past to pass bills dismantling some of Sununu’s executive actions, including by unwinding the state of emergency itself. This time, under a Republican-governed House, those efforts were successful. 

HB 63 set up unusual allies: Democrats sided with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s use of his emergency powers, while Republicans, by and large, opted to rein in that power.

“I am not a fan of governing by emergency order,” said Rep. David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat. “But there are times when the best way isn’t the best option. And this is one of those times.”

Meuse added that with around 1,200 deaths in New Hampshire due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the virus, the bill was “ill-timed and unwise.” Passing the bill would give businesses a green light to ignore state rules around mask usage and COVID mitigation requirements, he argued.

“It would send a clear and unmistakable message to those who disagree with orders designed to protect public health that they are not free to flout those orders without any worry of long-term consequences,” Meuse said. 

Democrats attempted to table the bill, arguing that it would likely take effect after the pandemic state of emergency ends and that it was unnecessary. 

But Rep. Andrew Prout, a Hudson Republican, argued that the bill was needed to heal divisions that sprouted during the pandemic between businesses and the attorney general. And he said that it would have real-term effects for some. 

“This bill is not just about the businesses that have been fined, but also about the businesses that fear they may be next,” Prout said. 

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