Garry Rayno's State House Dome: It's time to make legislative sausage
The last few weeks of a two-year session are the World Series for legislative insider baseball. Bills that have been killed by one side or the other miraculously appear as amendments on other bills.
The shenanigans have already begun.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, announced last week the Senate would not accept four House bills because the Senate killed the bills, or nearly identical bills, last session.
The House and Senate have similar rules that say bills killed in the first session cannot be brought back in the second year. Until recently, neither body enforced the rule, but the Senate began using it.
One of the bills the Senate refused to take was House Bill 1625, which makes the possession of less than an ounce of pot or hashish equivalent to a traffic ticket. The Senate was going to kill the bill again as it did last session, but by refusing to accept the bills, Morse is sending a message to the House.
Ultimately, it comes down to what does the other side want and how badly does it want it.
Morse wants a casino gambling bill. The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to vote on SB 366 last Tuesday, but put off the vote on the casino bill until this week. Earlier, the committee voted, 11-9, to kill House Bill 1633, which was the bill developed by the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, and the same vote is expected on SB 366.
Why wait a week? There is no reason to kill off a bill the Senate really wants until you have to, because if you do, the Senate will kill bills you really want.
If those wanting decriminalization of marijuana want to force the Senate to pass it, then they could try to persuade 15 to 20 House members who need to switch sides on the gambling bill to pass it so the marijuana bill could be attached.
Similar discussions could go on for any number of bills, such as the death penalty repeal, using some of the surplus to offset cuts in the Health and Human Services budget or limiting the use of drones.
The House and Senate each have bills that would limit how much weight an employer could put on a person's credit report in hiring and promoting employees. The House did not like the Senate's version of the bill and replaced it with the language from the bill members passed earlier this year.
Senators did not like what the House did to a fetal-homicide bill and replaced it with the original language in House Bill 1503, sponsored by Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster.
It goes on and on.
The strategic maneuvering can backfire, and a bill you really want can go up in flames as the additions and subtractions become a very delicate balance.
Some people complain about the gamesmanship and question whether this is the best way to make laws. Remember the old adage that the two things you never want to see made are sausage and law.
This is the time of year when you have to read all the amendments to bills because you never know what you will find.
Some of the ingredients may look quite familiar.
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Eulogy: Repealing the death penalty was never a sure thing if you stopped and counted the votes in the Senate.
Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, the repeal bill's prime sponsor, knew that, but he saw many longtime death penalty supporters switch sides in the House this year, including House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, and Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton. Cushing's optimism was understandable, and he and others worked hard to persuade senators on the fence to back repeal.
Although everyone talked about the repeal vote being a matter of conscience and not a partisan issue, the senators were breaking along party lines with two exceptions: Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington.
D'Allesandro has long supported the death penalty and wears Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs's badge number every day. Briggs was shot and killed in 2006 by Michael Addison, the state's only death row inmate.
Cataldo was a sponsor of the bill because he said God told him to do so.
Thursday morning, before the Senate vote, it was obvious passage hinged on two senators, Bob Odell, R-New London, and Russell Prescott, R-Kingston.
Both spoke leading up to the vote, but it was impossible from Prescott's speech to tell whether he supported repeal. When the vote came, he voted against repeal.
Odell gave an impassioned speech, noting his past support for the death penalty, but said he would vote for repeal because if the state execute's Addison, he could not rationally explain to his grandchildren what had been done.
Repeal failed on a 12-12 vote; it was tabled by the same tally.
HB 1077 can come off the table by a majority vote before May 1, but after that, it would take a two-thirds majority, which is almost an impossibility.
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Gas Tax: On Wednesday, the House is expected to approve Senate Bill 367 to increase the gas and diesel tax 4.2 cents to 22.2 cents, still the lowest in New England.
The House is not expected to change the bill, which would send it to Gov. Maggie Hassan's desk.
The bill had bipartisan support in the Senate and will have some in the House, but not as much.
At last week's executive session on the bill, Republicans tried three different amendments, any of which would have doomed the bill when it went back to the Senate. The amendments would have removed a provision to close the Exit 12 ramp toll on the F.E. Everett Turnpike; turned Continental Boulevard over to Merrimack to maintain; and eliminated the $200 million in bonds for the completion of the Interstate 93 expansion between Salem and Manchester.
The three amendments failed by very close votes before the Joint Public Works and Highways and Ways and Means committees. However, the vote to pass the bill was 26-11, with six Republicans joining Democrats to pass the bill.
Hassan has said she will sign the bill.
The increase in the gas tax would be the first since 1991 and would raise an additional $32 million a year, or about $588 million over the next 20 years.
All the money would be used to rehabilitate or maintain highways and bridges and to complete the Interstate 93 expansion.
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Odell Retires: Odell announced the day after the death penalty vote he would not seek reelection to his District 8 seat this year.
Odell, who is Senate Ways and Means chairman and sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said he wants to spend more time with his family and friends and pursue some of his other interests besides politics and public service.
As a senator, Odell has stuck to his beliefs and worked to pass what he supported without succumbing to the special-interest pressure.
Odell's retirement will open up the seat for both Republicans and Democrats, who in some elections did not run anyone against him.
The district was made a little more Republican when the political boundaries were redrawn before the 2012 election. The district for many years included Claremont and several towns along the Connecticut River that are no longer in the district, while Republican strongholds such as Weare and Antrim were added.
The district stretches from Grantham in the north to Francistown in the south and from Langdon in the west to Weare in the east.
The race to replace Odell should be wide open.
Odell's announcement is the first, but several other senators are expected to follow him into retirement before the end of the session.