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COVID policy looms large as N.H. lawmakers ring in 2022 session

New Hampshire State House dome - NHPR
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
New Hampshire State House

Pitched debates are expected on several issues including abortion, education and public health.

New Hampshire lawmakers are getting back to work this week, opening the 2022 session with unfinished business from last year. Both the House and Senate meet Wednesday. NHPR’s senior political reporter Josh Rogers joined Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about what to expect for this week — and for the year ahead.

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Rick Ganley: OK, so lawmakers start their year this week. What’s on the agenda?

They will take up the six bills Gov. Sununu vetoed in 2021.

Those include a proposal to move the state primary day from September to June; measures  to eliminate the state’s gun background check system; a plan to extend the statute of limitation for minors; and adding financial literacy to educational adequacy ... Overturning them would require two-thirds votes in both chambers

So that’s vetoes ... What other unfinished business remains from 2021?

Between the House and Senate, lawmakers retained 224 bills that will be put to votes this week. Most, if the committee recommendations stand, will be killed.

But there will be significant debates around abortion policy. One bill under consideration this week would eliminate the new requirement that every abortion be preceded by an ultrasound. That's a change Gov. Sununu has said he could support, though he did sign the budget bill last year that included that requirement.

COVID policy will also be conspicuous. One bill, backed by Republican leaders, effectively bans vaccine mandates imposed by any state employer, public or private. Gov. Sununu has said private businesses should have the right to require workers be vaccinated.

Issues surrounding school choice will also be prominent.

2022 could tell us a lot about both where both parties are ideologically at the State House.

A bill up for a vote this week aims to allow towns to opt in to contributing to education freedom accounts, an expansion of the voucher-like mechanism enacted last year that allows families to spend tax dollars on schools of their choice.

We should point out — neither the House nor the Senate is meeting in their usual spot, right?

No, the 400-member House is meeting at the function space at the Manchester Doubletree Hotel.

The 24-member Senate will keep its social distance by meeting at the State House, in Representatives Hall.

The federal lawsuit brought by Democrats of fragile health — and these include the two ranking Democrats in the House — seeking remote access to sessions, is still pending in a federal court.

Legislative leaders have taken some steps to make the State House safer for people, but with COVID case counts high and the demographics of the Legislature, it’s hard to see a full return to the State House for session days anytime soon. 

What’s your take on what new debates we’re going to hear in the State House this year?

Several dozen bills that touch on the pandemic have been filed, from vaccine and masking policies, including a proposal that would establish a right of conscience to exempt individuals from any COVID vaccine requirement. These will, given the state of the pandemic and partisan differences over COVID policy, be front and center. 

There are a lot of bills dealing with hot-button issues that will be considered this year — around education, gun rights, medical freedom, abortion. If Republicans stay as united as they did last year, they will be sending Gov. Sununu a range of conservative polices, including some – particularly around COVID and further abortion limits – he’d rather not see.

Legislative redistricting debate in Concord, N.H.
Peter Biello
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NHPR
Critics of a proposed legislative redistricting plan held signs outside a committee meeting at the N.H. State House on Sept. 29, 2021. The legislative boundaries are updated every 10 years based on the decennial Census numbers.

2022 could tell us a lot about where both parties are ideologically at the State House, and particularly what Republicans, who enjoy full control, choose to prioritize as we head into election season. Last year, Republicans advanced a great deal of conservative policy, and right now there is no reason to expect much different in 2022.

It’s also worth underscoring that lawmakers will also be approving new legislative maps this year, as part of the GOP-led redistricting process. By the looks of the maps as proposed, Republicans in New Hampshire are poised to be testing, if not flexing, their political muscles for some time.