CONCORD — Four years ago, fourth-graders from Lincoln Akerman School in Hampton Falls watched in shock and confusion as a bill filed on their behalf as part of a civics project became the vehicle for a graphic attack on Planned Parenthood from the well of the New Hampshire House.
That bill, to name the red-tailed hawk as the official state raptor, was defeated amid rancor over abortion and the value of student-sponsored “symbol bills” that occupy lawmakers every year.
The debate and defeat earned state lawmakers ridicule across the country, with headlines like this in the Washington Post: “New Hampshire, where fourth-graders behave and state legislators don’t.”
President Obama gave students the opportunity to name a red-tailed hawk that was living on the White House grounds. (They named it Lincoln).
The New Hampshire House offered those students a corrective experience on Wednesday, with a 333-11 vote to pass a new version of the bill that failed in 2015.
Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, visited the students in December to discuss reviving their 2015 effort.
“One of the things I appreciated in December when I went back to talk to the now-eighth graders is how much they could teach me about what transpired in the past four years,” he said.
“Listening to their experience, I was most struck by one of the students who said, ‘Four years ago, I didn’t even understand what Planned Parenthood is about, but now that I know, I can say what that representative did was really inappropriate.’”
“I think this is an opportunity for us to establish a symbol but also to show respect for the tenacity of those fourth-graders,” Cushing said.
Rep. Christy Bartlett, D-Concord, didn’t revive the tone of the 2015 debate, but she argued one of the points raised back then, urging her colleagues to reject the bill again.
“We are up to 39 state symbols,” she said, alluding to the annual approval of state symbols for all sorts of flora and fauna at the request of another fourth-grade class with a State House tour pending.
“The House has 1,000 bills to handle each year,” she said. “To originate, distribute and publish each bill is $1,700 and many move forward through the consent calendar because we don’t have time to oppose them.
“This is a budget year that brings forth many bills. Representatives on both sides of the aisle feel our attention and energy need to be directed where people of New Hampshire will be most affected by our decisions.”
That was then
That was more discreet than comments from then-Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester, who in the 2015 debate compared the red-tailed hawk hunt to an abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
“It grasps its prey with its talons then uses its razor-sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood,” he said.
The fourth-graders had a hard time making sense of that statement four years ago, but they clearly understood Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown.
“Bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills, and bills, and bills forward that really I think we shouldn’t have in front of us, we’ll be picking a state hot dog next,” he said.
All that was in the past on Wednesday, as the group of Lincoln Akerman students, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Our Second Try to Live Free and Fly,” got the VIP treatment at the State House.
The met with the Speaker and occupied the front row in the House gallery to witness the vote, which was special ordered to the top of the calendar on their behalf.
They saw a red-tailed hawk perched on a tree on their way to the debate, perhaps a good omen.
“Four years ago, we were excited because that’s what every fourth-grader should feel when you bring a bill here. You are happy and hoping it will pass,” said eighth-grader Joseph O’Connor.
“Now, four years later, we are all more excited and more determined and have a better argument than we did four years ago, with a better understanding of our state symbols. We’re more confident that everyone will vote ‘yes’ today.”
The bill now moves to the Senate.