As the N.H. House and Senate head for committees of conference on their respective state budget plans — some version of which will still have to be hammered out with the governor, who’s criticized both their versions — one sticking point could be a measure the House rejected and the Senate tabled earlier this session, giving the Supreme Court the authority to appoint a Housing Appeals Board that could override local zoning decisions.
The language was resurrected and stapled onto the budget. Although it has nothing to do with the budget or state spending, if it remains in House Bill 2 — one of two budget bills — and is signed by the governor, the language will become law. The 182-page Senate amendment to the budget bill includes almost all the Senate’s tweaks to the House budget. That occurs every year. But at least in theory, all those tweaks ought to be related to the budget. The language creating a Housing Appeals Board isn’t.
Also added to the budget bill, though completely unrelated, is language to modify the duties of the board of veterinary medicine; establish a committee to study outdated non-regulatory boards; and regulate public bathing facilities.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Any or all of these actions might be worthwhile. Still, all were either rejected by lawmakers earlier in the session or never discussed publicly until being attached late in the game to the most important legislation being dealt with this year — a bill hundreds of pages long, into which a few paragraphs here or there might not draw attention. And whether that’s the entire point, or not, it’s wrong.
It’s not the only — or most important — effort to bypass the normal process.
We’ve argued for years that New Hampshire’s reliance for revenues on various sin taxes, liquor and lottery sales, low-percentage business taxes, and an array of license fees, tolls and surcharges not only puts undue pressure on those who can least afford to pay, but leaves state coffers too tight to properly fund its obligations.
Among the potential solutions could be imposing, say, a 6.2 percent payroll tax on higher-income earners. It might start at $132,900 in wages – exactly where the 6.2 percent Social Security tax cuts off. Such a plan would generate hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars in revenue per year. It might be deemed by many a fairer way of paying for services, especially public education, the burden of which is among the most onerous for those in property-poor communities.
And it deserves a full vetting, including public input and committee examination in both the House and Senate.
Instead, Democratic senators, including Peterborough’s Jeanne Dietsch, tried to attach it as an amendment to a completely unrelated bill on the use of mobile electronic devices while driving as that bill was being considered by the Senate Finance Committee. Dietsch said she didn’t care whether the language was attached to an existing bill or as standalone legislation. What was important was making sure there’s more aid available to offset local property taxes, a laudable goal and a key campaign issue for many Democrats last November.
After a committee hearing, it was pulled, and rightly so. The legislative process is designed specifically to grant the public a say on potential changes to state law, and to give both chambers the opportunity to have their committees examine the pros and cons. When those in charge subvert that process by raising bills late in the session or adding unrelated language to legislation that’s already been otherwise vetted, it undermines confidence in the process as well as in those leaders.
In 2015, we took Republican leaders to task for adding language very late in the legislative session to a tobacco tax bill that would have allowed those profiting when they take their company public to sidestep the state’s business profits tax. The effort was clearly on behalf of former Gov. Craig Benson and others in the process of taking Planet Fitness public. Fortunately, the bill, while it made it through the GOP-controlled Legislature, was vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan. Republicans noted Hassan herself had voted as a senator in 2009 for a similar a last-minute move to close a state tax loophole pertaining to limited liability corporations. That maneuver was repealed by the Legislature the following year, after control flipped from the Democrats to the GOP.
Such moves are possible because there are times that lawmakers must adjust to circumstances well after the normal deadline for introducing legislation. That flexibility is necessary. But it’s more often misused by those in power to push through changes that have been, or could have been, properly vetted.
That’s wrong, regardless of who’s doing it and whether you agree with their goal.