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January 31. 2013 8:37PM

Fergus Cullen: Repeal frenzy in Concord undermines the concept of settled law

Elections have consequences. When one party loses its majority in the Legislature, one consequence is the ignominy of having to watch the new majority undo the old one's recent handiwork.


In 2011, the new Republican majority reversed a State House gun ban enacted by the previous Democratic majority. The first thing the new Democratic majority did last month was reinstate the ban.

Last year Republicans in the Legislature teamed up with the then all-Republican Executive Council to kill funding for a wasteful study on commuter rail. With Democrats now in charge of both bodies, the boondoggle is back from the dead and on track for passage.

The last Legislature cut the state cigarette tax by ten cents. The new Democratic majority looks certain to restore that cut and then some. The last Legislature expanded the state's existing castle doctrine, allowing people to use deadly force while defending themselves not just in their homes, but in most public places. The new Legislature may repeal the change.

This sort of political ping-pong is a relatively recent phenomenon in New Hampshire. It didn't used to happen because control of the New Hampshire Legislature never changed between the parties. Republicans dominated since the Old Man of the Mountain was a kid.

Those days ended in 1998, when Democrats rode Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's coattails to a 13-11 majority in the state Senate. That tenuous majority was short-lived: Republicans earned back a tie when Tom Eaton won a special election in Keene and they regained the majority the following year, but it was a harbinger. The permanent majority was no more. In 2006, Democrats took control of both chambers of the Legislature. The GOP got control back in 2010, and last year Democrats retook the House, but not the Senate.

The result is there is no such thing as settled law anymore. The last Legislature repealed the state's minimum wage law. The new Legislature is poised to repeal the repeal. The last Legislature passed a voter ID law. The new Legislature will vote on repeal.

It's not always bad to revisit past laws. Abolishing slavery and prohibition come to mind. The last Legislature repealed, in bipartisan fashion, the LLC tax crafted by then-state Sen. Maggie Hassan. It tried to end New Hampshire's participation in the failed Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The new majority did the right thing last month when it got rid of the Redress of Grievances Committee, itself reinstituted two years earlier, which had become a forum for angry dads with axes to grind against judges and ex-wives.

Nor is it bad to remeasure support for perennial issues when popular sentiment is shifting over time. Support for observing Martin Luther King Day grew for years before it passed. Efforts to repeal the death penalty advanced in 2000 and 2009, stopped by veto threats from Govs. Shaheen and John Lynch. Now New Hampshire has a death row inmate and new Gov. Hassan favors repeal.

But most repeal efforts in Concord these days are more about ideology and symbolism than they are about sound public policy. In too many cases laws are being reversed before they are given a chance to work, or the repeal seems motivated by grudges against former House Speaker Bill O'Brien and his pet causes.

A case in point is the Democratic effort to repeal New Hampshire's new education scholarship tax credit, a pilot program that offers hope for access to better schools to a couple hundred children. The program hasn't even been implemented yet and Democrats are already suffocating it in the crib. This repeal effort puts Democratic loyalty to teachers unions ahead of kids.

Republicans have made their own mistakes pushing repeals on ideological grounds. Last March, social conservatives tried to repeal New Hampshire's gay marriage law, asking legislators to take away a right that had already been bestowed. The measure failed when a majority of Republicans voted against it, suggesting the majority should never have taken the measure up in the first place.

Voters have little patience for Legislatures they perceive as more interested in scoring ideological points than improving people's lives, and constant repeal efforts can wear out a new majority's good will in a hurry.


Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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