THE REPUBLICAN leadership of the New Hampshire House taught state voters a lesson during the Sept. 18 and Sept. 19 House votes on Governor Sununu’s vetoes: “Your vote doesn’t count if it was a preference for bipartisan law-making.”
This is the case whether you cast that hopeful vote for a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian. It was ignored by the minority Republican leadership in the House, preferring a win for the governor and a loss to you on all bills with bipartisan support, but one.
The governor’s vetoes set the stage for this lesson, handing down 55 vetoes. One third of them blocked bills with bipartisan sponsorship. Over 50% of his vetoes jettisoned legislation that passed by a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate. Over 75% of them sank bills that had passed with bipartisan support in at least one chamber.
The minority leadership used this stage to drive the lesson home with what the governor called a “unified voting strategy.” Such a neutral description for governance dependent on party-line partisan voting to flatten bipartisanship in its midst.
The characteristics of this strategy are evident in the examples of three vetoed bills: HB 198, HB 409 and HB 365. Each ultimately was defeated by Republican partisanship squashing existing bipartisan votes within the caucus.
The governor had said he was “left with no choice” other than vetoes because the Democrats had “passed so many extreme bills.” Evidently, the Republican bipartisanship responsible for many of the bills coming forward had not tempered their “extreme” nature.
HB 198 was such an extreme bill, intended to clarify prohibitions against texting while driving. The Department of Safety favored it because the penalties in the existing law had not deterred repeat offenders. Sponsored entirely by Republicans and supported in committee with a bipartisan vote of 15-3, it passed the House by a lopsided bipartisan vote of 252-73.
The governor claimed New Hampshire penalties were stringent enough and opposed any license suspensions regardless of repeated offenses. Texting is six times more likely to cause an accident than drunk driving and causes 25% of all motor-vehicle accidents. The suspensions were far less stringent than those for drunk driving, but Republicans painted HB 198 as “Draconian” and unnecessary during floor debate. A party-line vote, 223-157, sustained the veto, crushing all Republican bipartisanship.
HB 409 allowed towns to charge up to $5 more on vehicle registrations, increasing the prior $5 limit, the first increase in 22 years. Sponsorship was bipartisan and a unanimous vote of 20-0 in committee sent it to a 234-103 House vote, more than a two-thirds majority.
During the House veto vote, Republicans opposed HB 409, implying that local decision-making could not be trusted. The additional $5 gave too much fiscal leeway to “municipal politicians.”
They argued that this change reduced transparency during town votes and allowed a hidden fund to accumulate and be spent without voter approval. The veto was sustained by another Republican party-line vote, 221 to 157.
The unified strategy dropped all pretenses during the veto vote on HB 365. This bill intended to increase local energy production with generating capacity built and owned by customers, particularly high-users. It created short- and long-term benefits on many levels, recognized by the bipartisan 254-98 House vote, far more than a two-thirds majority.
When HB 365 returned to the House for a veto vote, it ran squarely into the strategy with an impact visible to everyone in the chamber. A Republican representative had outlined the important benefits of the bill, arguing to overturn the veto.
He was followed quickly by a colleague bluntly accusing him of misrepresenting the bill, a rare and inappropriate personal attack on the floor met by the Speaker’s reprimand.
The governor’s veto was sustained, 248-132. A number of Republicans had voted their continued bipartisan support for this bill, threatening the party-line partisanship. They provoked a strident edge within the unifying strategy.
The minority Republican leadership corralled the bipartisanship of their Republican colleagues to defeat many other bills. Presumably, these were additional “extreme” bills giving the governor no choice. But, the governor did have a choice to do far more to reduce extreme politics in future legislatures. He could have signed HB 706, establishing an independent redistricting commission and initiating the decline of partisan gerrymandering in New Hampshire.
Gerrymandering fuels extreme politics. Bipartisanship is thrown under the bus and lawmaking becomes more polarized and entrenched. Legislation no longer approximates public preferences. Voters lose faith in government that ignores them.
In his 2019 Inaugural Address, Governor Sununu made this observation of our Legislature:
“New Hampshire is best when we work together, and that’s what we must do.”
Our state lost the rewards of that cooperation when the governor and Republican leadership lost sight of those words.