NH bills to keep an eye on as the session nears its end

On Thursday, the New Hampshire House of Representatives and Senate concluded their final traditional voting days, passing hundreds of bills to close out the year.

Now comes the dirty part.

While hearings, debates, and significant changes to the bills are complete, the majority of the legislation passed is not yet on Governor Chris Sununu's desk. And there is no guarantee that many of this session's most important bills will pass.

That's because of the “conference committee” process. In recent weeks, both the House and Senate have been making changes to each other's bills. A bill introduced in the House might have passed there and been sent to a Senate committee, which could make any number of changes. Now, that same bill must go back to the House, whose members must decide whether to accept the changes, reject them, or request a negotiating session with the Senate to find a compromise.

Here's a guide to this year's conference season committee — and information on which bills offer the most difficult paths forward.

What is a conference committee?

A conciliation committee is a body convened at the end of the legislative session to resolve disagreements between the House of Representatives and the Senate over bills.

When one legislative chamber receives one of its bills back with changes from the other chamber, the lawmakers have several options. If they vote “concurrence,” they accept the changes and the bill is sent to the governor's desk. If they vote “disconcurrence,” they reject the changes and the bill is immediately thrown out. If they vote to convene a conciliation committee, they ask for negotiations.

If both houses agree to negotiations, the committee is formed. Each committee is tasked with examining only one bill at a time. It consists of seven members: four representatives selected by the Speaker of the House and three senators selected by the President of the Senate.

In less than a week, this committee must discuss the differences between the House and Senate over the bill and try to find a compromise. All seven members must sign off on a compromise for it to move forward. Until the deadline, however, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate can replace members of the committee to select representatives who may be more willing to compromise. The original initiator of the bill can also speak to the committee and express his wishes.

If all seven members of the Mediation Committee agree, the bill with the proposed compromise amendment is submitted as a “report.” This report is voted on by the full House of Representatives and the Senate. Both can reject the bill, thus ending its further consideration.

The process is fast-moving and complex, and often fraught with political maneuvering. But there are some limitations: Conciliation committees cannot consider amendments that are not “relevant” or relevant to the underlying bill. That means lawmakers can't try to add bills from their wish list at the last minute.

When does all this happen?

There are three important deadlines. On Thursday, May 30, MPs from both chambers must vote on whether to accept the remaining amended bills, reject them, or request a mediation committee for them. All committees formed have until Thursday, June 6 to find a compromise and sign it.

The House of Representatives and the Senate then have until Thursday, June 13, to vote on whether to accept or reject the final reports.

Which bills should we watch out for this year?

With regard to the conference committee process, the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced a number of amendments to bills last week that could lead to the establishment of conference committees.

Many of those changes came from the Senate. The Republican-led chamber took House Bill 1370, a law originally intended to require extra-secure containers for ballots, and added to its version of the law the elimination of exemptions to the state's voter ID laws and the requirement of a birth certificate or other documents for voter registration. HB 1370 now includes the Senate bill, which continues to require a birth certificate or passport for voter registration but directs the Secretary of State's office to set up a “hotline” where municipal election officials can ask state employees whether a voter has citizenship documents.

The Senate made a number of changes to House Bill 318, which is designed to strengthen the state's bail laws. Among other things, it lowered the burden of proof so that judges can hold a defendant accused of a serious crime without bail. The House version required judges to find “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant poses a danger to the community. The Senate version simply requires the judge to find a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The Senate also made significant changes to the House's cannabis legalization bill, House Bill 1633, including an amendment to expand government control over proposed cannabis dispensaries. These changes have already led some Democrats and Republicans who support legalization to announce they will oppose the bill if it returns to the House.

Senate Republicans are at odds with House Republicans over how much to increase the state's Education Freedom Accounts, a voucher-like program that allows income-eligible families to use state education funds for private and home schooling costs. The program is currently available to people earning up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level. In House Bill 1665, the House proposed raising that cap to 500 percent of the federal poverty level, but the Senate changed that number to 400 percent.

The House, meanwhile, added a key last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 476 that would provide the Justice Department with $40 million to build a new prison. On Thursday, House Democrats added a controversial gun bill that the Senate had previously tabled that would require certain mental health data to be considered in background checks for guns. That amended bill will now be taken up by the Senate and could be sent to a mediation committee.

What is different this year?

The nearly even division of the House of Representatives between Democrats and Republicans impacted the conduct of business this session at both the committee and plenary levels.

One notable effect is an increase in votes for “indefinite postponement” of bills. When the full House of Representatives meets to vote, a bill is traditionally either passed, postponed, or rejected on the grounds that it “does not make legislative sense.”

But there is a more dramatic option: indefinite postponement. If the chamber votes for it, the bill will have failed and may not be revisited in substantially the same form for the entire two-year session.

This move is considered by many lawmakers to be a “nuclear option” to kill a bill, and was rarely used in the past. An analysis by Citizens Count, an organization that tracks New Hampshire legislation, found that lawmakers have only delayed bills indefinitely a few times per year in the 21st century.

The motion is intended to “really send a message,” said Anna Brown, executive director of Citizens Count: “We don't just dislike this law, we hate it. We want to make sure it can't be brought up again.”

This year is different. With narrow majorities meaning a few sick lawmakers can tip the balance in one party or another's favor on election days, House Democrats have used the option of indefinite adjournment 40 times in 2024, according to the General Court's website – the highest number in the 35 years for which online records are available. The move has been used primarily by Republicans, but Democrats have also used it on rare occasions when they have had a majority in the chamber.

“It was like it started a trend,” Brown said. “We're seeing indefinite postponements everywhere.”

As a result, in many cases this year, Senate members will not be able to bring bills back to conference committees because the House of Representatives has already voted for an indefinite adjournment.

“It won't just be dead,” Brown said. “It will be dead dead.”

However, with major issues such as bail reform, voter ID laws and cannabis legalization on the agenda, this year's conference committee will be as busy as ever.

This story was originally published in the New Hampshire Bulletin..

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *