How a parking garage project could affect the future of N.H. housing, bail reform and more
The New Hampshire House and Senate are close to wrapping up a packed legislative year, voting and sorting through nearly 1,000 bills. But before summer can begin, lawmakers must endure a marathon negotiation: committees of conference week.
It’s a frantic, high stakes system that few legislators love. But the committee of conference process provides key opportunities for lawmakers in competing chambers to advance – or save – their priorities at the last possible minute.
“We predict what will happen in a committee of conference at our own peril,” said House Deputy Speaker Steve Smith, a Charlestown Republican. “You never know what issues will get brought down to earth.”
Under the state’s legislative process, lawmakers in both the House and Senate may take bills passed by the other chamber, add amendments, and send them back. If the original body accepts the changes, the bill moves on to the governor’s desk. If the body rejects the changes, the bill dies.
Often, lawmakers will pick a third option: negotiation. Sending the matter to a “committee of conference” allows handpicked representatives of each chamber a week to hash out the two versions of the bill and try to find compromise.
The process is meant to improve collaboration between chambers. But it’s also a prime moment for legislators to attach priorities onto unrelated but popular bills, and force the other chamber to reconsider ideas it may have already rejected.
“That’s the legislative process,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “I mean, obviously, our friends in the House have their priorities. Senators have their priorities. And that’s why getting a bill passed and signed into law is – it’s supposed to be difficult. It should be difficult.”
This year, state lawmakers are at it again. The New Hampshire Senate worked through the night May 5 to attach a string of bills to legislation both chambers want to pass. Their vehicle of choice: House Bill 1661, which would use around $30 million in federal funds to build a new parking garage for House lawmakers, who’ve said their existing garage has become unsafe.
The parking garage bill is not the only one with amendments for lawmakers to trade and negotiate this week. But it is the most prominent, and one that House lawmakers will be trying especially hard to preserve.
The garage bill grows
For Smith, the garage renovation is timely. The Storrs Street garage is rapidly deteriorating, he said. Replacing it with a new one will be expensive, and the federal relief money proposed to finance the renovation will expire within a few years.
That reality is perhaps why the bill made a tempting target for an amendment battle. Facing its deadline last Thursday night to make changes to House legislation, the Senate added a bail reform bill that was tabled by the House; a housing bill that was also tabled; a school funding bill that had been altered by the House; and a laundry list of health care law changes requested by the Department of Health and Human Services.
After last Thursday’s session, what began as a parking garage project bill has turned into a 34-page omnibus with 23 add-ons.
Two of the major additions are priorities for Bradley. He sponsored the housing bill, originally Senate Bill 400, which was championed by Gov. Chris Sununu but was tabled by the House last week. That bill would overhaul local zoning decisions, adding new requirements and incentives for cities and towns to speed up approvals of new housing developments.
Bradley had also sponsored a bill tightening the state’s 2018 “bail reform” law by requiring automatic pretrial detention for defendants charged with one or more serious offenses, including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and possession of child abuse imagery. The House had also tabled that bill; Bradley and the Senate revived it by adding it to the parking garage bill.
In an interview, Bradley said the garage bill is not a catch-all landing zone for desired Senate bills. Some disagreements, like that over the bail reform bill, are likely to be hashed out in different, duplicate bills that are also going to a committee of conference. But adding them into the garage bill provides a backstop in case those negotiations fall through, Bradley said.
He is optimistic.
“I understand that some of my colleagues in the House have some questions about Senate Bill 400,” he said. “And hopefully we can answer those questions. That’s all I can ask for at this point. We’ll have a discussion and hopefully we get to a good spot.”
The Senate’s parking garage omnibus bill also contains a provision, advanced by Sen. Erin Hennessey, a Littleton Republican, to restore a bill to help struggling public schools with new “extraordinary need grants.” While House lawmakers passed that in Senate Bill 420, they added an amendment to raise the income cap for families getting scholarships through the Education Tax Credit Program. The Senate already voted down that standalone bill.
And the parking garage bill includes its own additional mini omnibus bill: Senate Bill 430, which includes health care reforms such as the creation of a dedicated fund for opioid use disorder treatment; a pilot program to devote resources to people with developmental disabilities; and a Medicaid expansion for “preventative health care benefits,”’ which allows some out-of-state physicians to give care to New Hampshire residents over telemedicine.
Smith said he understands the Senate’s decision to use the parking garage bill as leverage. The House, with its 400 representatives, has much more to gain from a new garage than does the 24-member Senate.
“It isn’t that we have an option about fixing the Storrs Street (parking garage) problem,” he said. “At some point, it will be condemned.”
It’s not just one party that takes advantage of the committee of conference process, and the efforts are not confined to one bill.
The Senate amended a bill to create data privacy requirements for Department of Health and Human Services by adding $5 million in federal relief dollars for homeless shelters.
Senate Democrats are pushing to include a bill from Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat, requiring state contractors to use U.S. steel in certain projects in a House bill that would exempt sellers of open blockchain tokens from some securities laws.
And Democrats are hoping to use the process to resurrect bills to allow WIC food assistance to be used at New Hampshire farmers markets, and to expand Medicaid to cover postpartum care.
Lawmakers have only until the end of Thursday to decide which bills they will let die and which they’ll take to a committee.
For each approved committee, the House speaker will appoint four representatives, and the Senate president will appoint three senators to each committee. They will be able to make changes, but they may not introduce amendments not relevant to the subject matter or the amendments already in the bill.
Adding to the behind-the-scenes intrigue, the members of the committees ultimately serve at the pleasure of the House speaker and Senate president. If the House speaker disagrees with a committee member’s stance on a bill, the speaker can swap them out for another member. The appointed committee members must have voted in favor of the underlying bill – an incentive to fight for it and not sabotage it.
Negotiators have a week. By May 19, they must decide whether they can reach a resolution, or have failed to do so. That compromise must then pass both chambers. The House and Senate chambers have until May 26 to approve or reject any resolutions.
The negotiations can feel breakneck, and the process is made even more inscrutable by the fact that multiple committees meet at once and the final compromises are often initially struck behind closed doors. But House and Senate leaders say when it comes to securing legislative priorities, it’s the best mechanism the Legislature has.
“I don’t know if there’s a better way,” Smith said. “I’m not a fan of the process, but I don’t have a better idea.”
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