Following a shutdown due to the pandemic, the New Hampshire House convened at the Whittemore Center at UNH, on June 11th. The Legislature had conducted remote committee hearings, yet this was the first assembly by the full House since March.
After years of research and immense efforts contributing to the bills introduced this year, the session essentially came down to two pivotal votes on that day.
Unfortunately, when given the opportunity to continue working on the 2020 session for NH's residents and animals, the House GOP voted against extending the House deadlines, as well as the consent calendar, putting an abrupt and disappointing end to the session, and causing the death of numerous bills addressing a broad range of crucial issues - including five animal protection measures that were on a solid path towards success.
House GOP Votes Against Extending The Session
The first vote was on an amendment to House Rule 65 (A), which would have extended the House session from the initial deadline of June 4th to June 30th. The motion provided more time for the Legislature to act on bills and prevent their failure due to a lack of time.
Speaking against the motion was Rep. Carol McGuire (Merrimack - Dist. 29). "In the next two weeks, we would have to hold an unprecedented number of public hearings with remote public distancing," she stated, "which, based on the samples I've seen, is going to be extremely difficult and not as productive as having them in person." Rep. McGuire also expressed that while voting on the Senate bills by June 30th was possible, the schedule left no time for committees of conference, which she believes is often necessary to negotiate with the Senate, referring to that lack of time as 'ridiculous.'
2020 was certainly an unprecedented and challenging session. However, her comment regarding remote hearings can be considered rather antiquated. It also raises the question, if the Legislature cannot resume in-person public hearings next year, would Rep. McGuire choose not to do any work if re-elected?
Although ample time for negotiations is ideal, many can argue that no session has perfect deadlines, let alone during a pandemic. And while a committee of conference helps to iron out differences, they're not always necessary nor successful, and the House would still have had the power to concur or not with Senate amendments.
Speaking in favor of extending the session was Rep. Lucy Weber (Cheshire - Dist. 1). "It is very true that this is a difficult schedule, but these are difficult times. We have bills that have been worked on that are ready to go," she said, "and this is a schedule which has been negotiated and agreed to with the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike ..." I believe that rather than saying because it's difficult we will do no work, it is better to say because it's difficult we will do as much as we can, as well as we can, to serve the state of NH."
Disappointingly, the Grand Old Party disagreed with Rep. Webber.
With a vote of 199 (58%) - 143 (42%), the motion failed due to not having the necessary two-thirds of the House (66%). The vote was split right down party lines with the Democrats voting to extend the session and Republicans voting against it.
Majority of House GOP Votes Against Bipartisan Consent Calendar
Looking to save bills and accomplish some work for NH that day, was Rep. Ellen Read (Rockingham - Dist. 17). She motioned to suspend the rules (vote despite the expired session) and adopt the consent calendar.
The consent calendar is a list of bills with bipartisan support and that pass committees unanimously or with an overwhelming majority, typically having no more than 1 or 2 in the minority. The House then votes on the consent calendar as a whole, rather than each of those bills individually.
Rep. Read spoke to her motion on the House floor, stating, "After a very contentious day, we can all agree that the consent calendar is something that consists of bills that have broad bipartisan support. I'd really like to leave today knowing we've accomplished something, and since all these bills were widely agreed upon by both parties, I would really appreciate it if everybody would support it."
Animal protection bills included on the consent calendar were HB 1606-FN and HB 1627-FN.
HB 1606-FN, primarily sponsored by Rep. Ellen Read (Rockingham - Dist. 17), created felony-level penalties for the purposeful beating or torture of free-roaming wildlife, such as lighting a skunk on fire or beating a raccoon to death with a baseball bat. The intentional cruelty of domestic animals and wildlife in captivity (zoo, sanctuaries, etc.) is a felony under existing law (RSA 644:8). However, NH is one out of only five states in the nation with no such law for free-roaming wildlife.
Written with the direct insight from the Fish and Game Department, HB 1606-FN would have rectified that issue, while excluding all lawful hunting, trapping, and fishing practices, as well as residents' rights to protect themselves and their property. The House Criminal Justice Committee passed HB 1606-FN unanimously, leading to its placement on the consent calendar.
HB 1627-FN created an online database for animal health certificates, vaccinations, quarantine, and transfer records. The NH Department of Agriculture receives tens of thousands of health certificates per year. Those certificates indicate the current health and medical history of dogs, cats, and ferrets transferred (sold, adopted-out) by NH pet vendors (pet stores, breeders, shelters). Not only are those health certificates crucial to prevent animal suffering and the spread of disease, but to monitor the number of animals transferred in NH, which directly links to the licensing and regulation of pet vendors.
Despite their importance, those health certificates are merely placed into boxes to collect dust, leading to a significant lack of organization, oversight, and enforcement of animal protection laws. HB 1627-FN would have contributed to a solution by creating an online database. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Peter Bixby (Strafford - Dist. 17) - despite his many actions against animal protection overall, and Sen. Jeb Bradley (Wolfeboro - Dist. 3), who was a champion for domestic animals in 2018 and 2019.
Every Democrat who voted, voted to pass the consent calendar. However, the motion required a two-thirds majority (66%) and failed by about 2% (~7 people), with 64% of the House voting yea and 36% voting nay. Out of approximately 156 Republican representatives, only 16 voted to pass it.
Among those 16 were Rep. Daryl Abbas and Rep. Betty Gay (Rockingham - Dist. 8), who were both sponsors of bills on the consent calendar, likely contributing to their vote. It is noteworthy that both representatives have been supportive of animal protection measures. However, they also both voted with their party against extending the session deadlines.
Animal Protection Measures Lost
After the House's failure, the Senate was left to pick up the pieces. They conducted numerous remote committee hearings and put together multiple omnibus bills, which included the language of several bills from the 2020 session. The Senate's goal was to save legislation with strong bipartisan support and that passed the House or House committees with an overwhelming majority - or as many of them as they could.
Five animal protection bills on a solid path towards implementation this year were lost due to a lack of time before the session ended.
HB 1560-FN, a crucial bill that enhanced the penalties for animal cruelties that cause the serious injury or death of domestic animals, was not placed within an omnibus bill. Public support of strengthening penalties for animal cruelty ignited over the last few years, particularly in light of the Merrimack dog drowning case. HB 1560-FN was sponsored by Rep. Katherine Rogers (Merrimack - Dist. 28). It passed two House committees and the full House twice this year. Unfortunately, it was laid on the table among a long list of bills that the Senate did not have time to act on before the session ended.
Despite being on the House consent calendar, bipartisan co-sponsors, and having been passed unanimously by the House Criminal Justice Committee, the aforementioned wildlife cruelty bill (HB 1606-FN), was also left off the omnibus bills and died due to the session ending.
HB 1117-FN, which elevated the penalty for the theft or poisoning of a dog to a felony, was also left out, despite passing two House Committees with a substantial majority. HB 1117-FN was introduced by Rep. Brian Sullivan (Sullivan - Dist. 1).
HB 1123, a bill requiring that any driver who knowingly strikes a cat, report it to the owner or police as soon as possible, was vacated by the Senate Transportation Committee due to a lack of time. Existing law requires such reporting involving collisions with dogs, but not cats, contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of cats, often without their families' knowledge. The bill was introduced by Rep. Daryl Abbas (Rockingham - Dist. 8) and passed the House Transportation Committee 18-1.
The previously discussed health certificate database bill (HB 1627-FN) made it onto omnibus bill HB 1234-FN-A, along with the language of numerous bills covering various pressing issues. Unfortunately, Governor Sununu vetoed HB 1234-FN-A. The veto was not overturned due to a lack of a two-thirds vote in the House - a vote that, again, was split down party lines, except for five Democrats who voted against the motion along with the GOP. Given Sununu's support of domestic animal protection in 2018 and 2019, it's highly likely that the health certificate database would've been safe from a veto as a stand-alone bill.
Session Failure Leaves Long-Lasting Impact on Residents
One could argue that even if the House voted to extend the session that the Senate would not have had the time to act on all House bills, regardless. However, that is speculative. Many would have bet against the Senate's ability to save as many bills as they did under the time constraint they had. One can only imagine how much additional work would have been accomplished had the session been extended.
The bottom line is that the House GOP was given an opportunity to try - a chance to put in the effort and vote on legislation that could significantly change the lives of the people and animals of NH, to be leaders, to do the work they were elected to do, and give Granite Staters' hope during a dark time - and they chose not to. Many bills introduced in 2020 where a result of years of research, hard work, and dedication, not just by the Legislature but by public officials, organizations, local humane societies, and citizens. Even if the Senate didn't have time to address each bill, the House votes would have been on the record, become a part of history and something to point to in the future. They failed to do even that. A truly disappointing, and in some cases, devastating outcome. One of which all NH residents should consider when filling out their ballots this November.