First it was the ban on guns in Reps Hall and mandatory sexual harassment awareness training.
Now, the question of who gets to take pictures or videos during committee hearings could be the next confrontation between the newly elected Democratic majority and the Republican minority in the House of Representatives.
Republican State Rep. John Burt of Goffstown, who’s already said he has no intention of abiding by the concealed weapons ban, is challenging a ruling by Hampton Democrat Renny Cushing, now chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The committee was holding a public hearing Tuesday on House Bill 189, a bill to exempt juvenile victims of human trafficking from prosecution for nonviolent crimes committed while under the control of traffickers, when Burt began taking pictures of a witness.
Cushing asked him not to photograph or videotape witnesses while sitting at the committee table as a legislator.
Burt challenged that ruling, which prompted Cushing to invite House Speaker Steve Shurtleff to the Wednesday meeting of the committee for a primer on the right of a committee chair to set committee rules.
“A woman who had been a victim of sex trafficking was presenting testimony,” Cushing said. “We looked down and he was there videotaping. So I asked him not to videotape. He challenged that, and I said House rules say the chair is responsible for decorum and the rule here is, we’re here to be legislators and listen to public testimony, not to be part of the media.”
Burt says he was not videotaping, only taking a still photo, and that the witness is someone he admires and wanted to share the photo with.
Shurtleff appeared in the committee room on Wednesday before regular hearings began to support Cushing’s contention that the chair makes the rules for his or her committee, subject to challenge by a full committee vote.
“If someone wants to videotape, they have to step back from this table and do it from the area of the general public, because you are not acting as a legislator. You are involved in videotaping the hearing,” he said.
Rep. John Bordenet, a Democrat from Keene, made a motion to challenge Cushing’s ruling, which failed 14-6.
“What are you going to do to Representative John Burt if I take a picture from this position because I feel I have that right,” said Burt, looking straight at Shurtleff who was sitting only a few feet to his right.
“To do that would actually be an insult to this committee,” Shurtleff said, “because they’ve made a decision to support the ruling of the chair.”
Burt, who said he’s seen Cushing use a camera from behind the committee table in past sessions, called the ruling an abuse of power.
“They (the Democrats) have anti-gun, anti-firearms bills coming and they know in the past that I have videotaped them and put them on YouTube and shared them with my gun-friendly constituents,” Burt said.
On a bipartisan note, it was a Democrat from Keene who made the motion to challenge Cushing, while Republican State Rep. David Welch of Kingston, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee under Republican majority, spoke in Cushing’s defense.
“The chair has to enforce decorum,” he said, “and if the committee members are going to make their own rules, you can’t have decorum.”
Now for the details
This week the Senate begins its public hearings with four of the biggest bills of the session on tap for Tuesday.
Democratic senators will roll out their job training initiative (SB 2) and plans to beef up staffing at the Division for Children Youth and Families (SB 6) before the Finance Committee.
The Health and Human Services Committee will hold hearings on SB 11, a funding bill for mental health services, and SB 5, a bill to beef up Medicaid provider rates for mental health and substance abuse.