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Marijuana legalization, bail reform among hundreds of bills awaiting final action at NH State House

NH State Hosue plaza, Concord, New Hampshire. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR
Dan Tuohy
There are three key deadlines. On Thursday, May 30, lawmakers in both chambers must vote on whether they are accepting, rejecting, or requesting committees of conference for the remaining amended bills. Any committees formed will have until Thursday, June 6, to find a compromise and sign off on it. Then, the House and Senate will have until Thursday, June 13, to vote to accept or reject the final reports.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

The New Hampshire House and Senate finished their last traditional voting days Thursday, taking action on hundreds of bills as they seek to wrap up the year.

Now comes the messy part.

While the hearings, floor debates, and major amendments to the bills are done, most of the legislation that has passed is still not ready for Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. And many of the headline bills this session are not guaranteed to pass.

That’s because of the “committee of conference” process. Over the past several weeks, both the House and Senate have made amendments to each other’s bills. A bill that originated in the House might have passed that chamber and crossed over to a Senate committee, which might have any number of changes. Now, that same bill must return to the House, whose members need to decide whether they will accept the changes, reject them, or request a negotiating session with the Senate to come up with a compromise.

Here’s a guide to this year’s committee of conference season – and which bills have the trickiest paths forward.

What is a committee of conference?

A committee of conference is a body convened at the end of the legislative calendar to resolve disputes between the House and Senate over bills.

When one legislative chamber receives back one of its bills with amendments from the other chamber, lawmakers have a few choices. If they vote to “concur” with the changes, they are accepting the amendments and the bill will head on to the governor’s desk. If they vote to “nonconcur,” they are rejecting the amendments and the bill dies immediately. If they vote to request a committee of conference, they are asking to negotiate.

If both chambers agree to negotiate, the committee is formed. Each committee is tasked with considering one bill only and is staffed with seven lawmakers: four representatives chosen by the House speaker and three senators chosen by the Senate president.

In less than a week, that committee must discuss the House and Senate differences with the bill, and try to find a compromise. All seven members must sign off on a compromise in order for it to advance. But the House speaker and Senate president are free to replace members of the committee up until the deadline, allowing them to select lawmakers who might be more amenable to compromise. The original sponsor of the bill is also allowed to speak to the committee to give input on what they would like to see.

If all seven committee of conference members agree, the bill with its proposed compromise amendment will move forward as a “report.” That report will be voted on by the full House and Senate, either of which can reject the bill, ending its progress.

The process is fast-moving and complex, and often laden with political maneuvering. But there are some constraints: The committees of conference cannot consider any amendment that is not “germane,” or relevant, to the underlying bill, meaning that lawmakers cannot attempt to tack on bills off their wishlist at the last minute.

When is all of this happening?

There are three key deadlines. On Thursday, May 30, lawmakers in both chambers must vote on whether they are accepting, rejecting, or requesting committees of conference for the remaining amended bills. Any committees formed will have until Thursday, June 6, to find a compromise and sign off on it.

Then, the House and Senate will have until Thursday, June 13, to vote to accept or reject the final reports.

What are the bills to watch this year?

With an eye to the committee of conference process, the House and the Senate spent last week inserting a number of amendments into bills that could lead to committees of conference.

Many of those changes came from the Senate. The Republican-led chamber took House Bill 1370, a bill originally intended to require extra secure containers for election ballots, and added in their version of legislation eliminating exceptions to the state’s voter ID laws and requiring a birth certificate or other documentation to register to vote. HB 1370 now contains the Senate’s bill, which would still require a birth certificate or passport to register to vote, but would direct the Secretary of State’s Office to create a “hotline” in which town election officials could ask state employees to confirm whether a voter has citizenship documents.

The Senate made a number of changes to House Bill 318, a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s bail laws, including by lowering the standard of evidence allowing judges to hold someone accused of a major felony without bail. The House version required that judges find “clear and convincing evidence” that a felony defendant is a danger to their community; the Senate version requires only that the judge find a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The Senate has also made significant alterations to the House’s cannabis legalization bill, House Bill 1633, including an amendment to increase the amount of state control over the proposed retail cannabis outlets. Those changes have already led some Democrats and Republicans who support legalization to vow to reject the bill when it comes back to the House.

Senate Republicans have disagreed with House Republicans over how much to expand the state’s education freedom accounts, the voucher-like program that allows income-eligible families to use state education funds toward private and home school expenses. The program is currently available to people making up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level; in House Bill 1665, the House has proposed raising that cap to 500 percent of the federal poverty level, but the Senate has amended that number to 400 percent.

The House meanwhile added a major last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 476, which would direct $40 million to the Department of Corrections toward a new prison. On Thursday, House representatives tacked on a controversial gun bill the Senate had earlier tabled that would require certain mental health records be added to gun background checks. That amended bill will now be taken up by the Senate and could go to a committee of conference.

What is different about this year?

The House’s near-even division of Democrats and Republicans has affected how it has conducted business this session, both at the committee level and full chamber level.

One notable effect is a rise in votes to “indefinitely postpone” bills. Traditionally, when the the full House meets to vote, they will pass a bill, table it, or kill it with a motion of “inexpedient to legislate.”

But there is a more dramatic option: the indefinite postponement. When the chamber votes for this, the bill is killed and also may not return in substantially similar form for the entire two-year session.

That move is considered by many lawmakers as a “nuclear option” to kill a bill, and it used to be rarely used. An analysis by Citizens Count, an organization that tracks legislation in New Hampshire, found that for most of the 21st century, lawmakers indefinitely postponed bills only a handful of times every year.

Using the motion is designed to “really make a statement,” said Anna Brown, executive director of Citizens Count: “Not only do we dislike this legislation, we hate it. We want to make sure there’s not a chance it can come back.”

This year is different. With thin margins that mean a few sick lawmakers can tip the balance to either party on voting days, House lawmakers have used the indefinite postponement option 40 times in 2024, according to the General Court website – the highest in the 35 years for which online records are available. The move has been used largely by Republicans, but Democrats have also used it on rare occasions when they have assumed the majority of the chamber.

“It was like it kicked off a trend,” Brown said. “We’re seeing indefinite postponement left and right.”

The result is that in many cases this year, Senate lawmakers are unable to try to resurrect bills during the committee of conference process because they have already been voted to be indefinitely postponed in the House.

“It’s not going to be just dead,” Brown said. “It’s going to be dead dead.”

Even so, with major topics like bail reform, voter ID laws, and cannabis legalization on the line, this year’s committee of conference season will be as busy as ever.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network 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: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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