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After cookie-themed mock session, N.H. lawmakers get set for real return to House chamber

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Two years after the New Hampshire House left Representatives Hall, Rep. Carol McGuire returned to the chamber’s podium to talk about Oreos.

“As you know, the classic dunk is milk,” said the Epsom Republican last week, speaking from the traditional “well” to an assembly of lawmakers below. “But that tends to be discriminatory to our lactose intolerant constituents. And therefore, we needed to consider other options. Red wine, of course. But do you use merlot? Or burgundy, or what? I’ve heard rumors of white wine, but that’s just not the New Hampshire way.”

The occasion was significant: the planned return to the traditional, close-knit chamber after years of alternative venues across the state. As part of a mock session, the topic – a commission to study the interior of Oreos – was anything but.

“This bill was only filed because of the Washington, D.C., Oreo lobby and the sponsors’ deep ties and addiction to ‘Double Stufs,’” said Rep. Steve Smith, the deputy speaker.

New Hampshire’s 400-member House will formally return as a body to Representatives Hall on Thursday in its first meeting since Speaker Sherman Packard announced the restoration of voting days in the traditional chamber. A week ago, however, the speaker invited lawmakers to a mock session to reorient members to the room and give examples of poor behavior at the podium.

Throughout his speech, Smith was gaveled by Packard for brandishing a package of Oreo cookies on the floor – a forbidden use of a prop during a speech. He was told off for assigning ill motive to the sponsor of the Oreo bill, McGuire. And when he apologized to “Carol,” he was admonished for using her first name.

“I am so embarrassed,” Smith said. The study commission bill failed, 14-27.

The subject was frivolous, but the motivation behind the exercise was not, Packard said. In the years in which the chamber had left Representatives Hall, good behavior had plummeted, he said. Now, he was attempting to address bad behavior in advance.

“The decorum in Bedford and Manchester was probably close to despicable by our members,” Packard said, noting the noise and conversations on both sides of the aisle had reached unnecessary proportions.

Some of the instructions to members were basic.

“This is a very big gavel,” said Paul Smith, New Hampshire’s House clerk, holding up the giant wooden hammer next to his head. “And when it gets swung down, especially when the speaker is banging it, that means ‘shh.’”

House members’ “parliamentary inquiries” – the summary speeches given just ahead of a vote on a bill – should be short and sweet, Smith said. “We’ve gone on very long on those things lately, and I think we need to pull it back.”

And the chamber’s dress code, while technically non-existent, relies on the expectation of reasonableness, Smith said. “Please dress in a manner that is respectful of the fact that you are sitting in the same room as a member 200 years ago,” Smith said.

How well the House takes to the appeals to decorum on Thursday remains to be seen. Many Democrats have protested the decision to return to the chamber at all, citing health risks and advocating for more time in socially distanced spaces. A series of clear plastic barriers set up between Democratic and Republican seats have only inflamed partisan frustrations in recent days.

But when they do meet, members will have a docket of bills more serious than Oreo cookies. Here’s a glimpse of what’s in store.

Vaccine protections and abortion restrictions

A few COVID-19-related bills will come to the House floor with a committee recommendation they be killed.

They include allowing a person over 16 to get any vaccination against a communicable disease without parental consent; awarding expanded unemployment benefits to workers fired for refusing a vaccine mandate; and permitting people to file a civil rights complaint with the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission if they were denied a job, housing, or access to public venue based on vaccination status.

Several other COVID-19-related bills have strong committee support, but it’s questionable how much impact they’d have if passed.

One would expand the Patient Bill of Rights law to prohibit medical facilities from denying care to someone based on vaccination status, a non-issue according to testimony at a public hearing. The other would forbid the Department of Health and Human Services from demanding proof of vaccination to participate in its programs or receive its benefits and services, something the department has not proposed.

The so-called “fatherhood bill,” which would allow a man, without proving paternity, to ask a court to halt a woman’s ultrasound appears headed to interim study, a more polite demise than inexpedient to legislate. Opposition has been significant. Of the nearly 3,000 people who registered their position on the bill, just 34 supported it.

An effort to repeal the recovery fund for the nearly 150 victims of the $20 million Financial Resources Mortgage Ponzi scheme appears to be going nowhere. The House Ways and Means Committee voted, 19-0, to recommend the bill be killed, saying the process was too far along to reverse course.

Since the state began accepting applications in January, 16 people have submitted claims, said Associate Attorney General James Boffetti. The application period closes May 18.

The fund’s administrator will evaluate claims and decide awards, which are to be paid in December, Boffetti said.

Green burials, cybersecurity, and cyanobacteria

House Bill 1320 would repeal the embalming statute, making clear that embalming is a personal choice and not mandated by the state under any circumstance. Advocates of green burial have pushed for this bill to ensure people’s right to choose if they want to forgo chemicals. The bill is set to pass the House on the consent calendar, arriving with a 20-0 “ought to pass” recommendation out of committee.

The House is also poised to pass House Bill 1277, requiring the immediate reporting of cybersecurity incidents – a proposal that received a unanimous 19-0 “ought to pass” as amended out of committee.

House Bill 1066 originally sought to create a study commission to address health impacts of cyanobacterial blooms on humans, animals, and the environment. The version of the bill arriving in the House, with a 21-0 “ought to pass” recommendation, instead directs the Department of Environmental Services to create a plan to tackle New Hampshire’s growing cyanobacteria problem.

The House is set to kill a Republican-backed bill that would have required New Hampshire businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to check would-be employees’ citizenship status. House Bill 1124 got a 20-1 “inexpedient to legislate” recommendation out of committee and is on Thursday’s consent calendar.

Wireless privacy protections

The House will consider a bill, House Bill 1282, that would prohibit wireless carriers from releasing names, addresses, and other information about its users to government entities – including police departments – unless the government obtained a search warrant. A bipartisan majority of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee said the bill is an important extension of a recently added amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing the right of privacy. But some opponents say that it could tie up law enforcement investigations into people accessing child sexual exploitation imagery, which they said demanded quick action.

The House is set to approve House Bill 1157, which would formalize into law New Hampshire’s policy that the state’s ballot counting machines may not be connected to the internet, as well as House Bill 1174, which would allow election challengers to observe towns’ vote tallying processes from a distance of six feet or more.

And the chamber will likely pass House Bill 1195, which would require that public school board or school administrative unit meetings include a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting that could be capped at one hour, and House Bill 1109, which would require voters at town meetings, not select boards, to approve off-highway recreational vehicle allowances on town-controlled roads.

A bill to prohibit profiling by police officers of motorcyclists, House Bill 1000, looks set to sail through the House Thursday, as does another bill, House Bill 1474, which would remove the requirement that vehicle inspections be carried out in the owner’s birth month, and instead allow them to scheduled any time within the calendar year.

But one bill, to propose a state constitutional amendment declaring New Hampshire’s independence from the United States, has a dim future Thursday. The bill received a 21-0 recommendation that it be killed by the House State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee.

“The committee believes that articles of secession are unconstitutional and therefore impossible,” wrote Rep. Brodie Deshaies, a Wolfeboro Republican, in an explanation in the House Calendar.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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