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Lawmakers face big issues in final day of 2018 legislative session

State House Bureau

May 22. 2018 8:59PM

CONCORD — Control over postponing local elections, a controversial bail reform bill and more than $100 million in additional state spending are some of the issues lawmakers in the House and Senate will face today as they try to wrap up business for the 2018 session.

House and Senate negotiators have agreed on the Senate version of a town election law that gives the secretary of state, not town moderators, authority to postpone voting due to bad weather or other adverse conditions.

The Legislature has been grappling with the issue for the past two years, since bad weather hit on town election day in March of 2017 and again this year.

The Senate passed SB 438 to permit town officials to reschedule local elections with approval from the secretary of state, while the House position is that local elections should be rescheduled by local officials.

House negotiators believed it was unacceptable to end the term without providing some mechanism for rescheduling local elections, according to Rep. Greg Hill, R-Northfield, and so agreed to present the Senate version to the full House.

House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, predicted that recommendation will encounter tough resistance on the House floor, particularly among Democrats.

“The caucus members are free to vote any way they want,” he said, “but I think the vast majority of the Democratic caucus and a lot of Republicans will join us in voting down that committee report.”

If the conference committee report is defeated, no bill passes and the status quo remains in effect. According to recent rulings by the attorney general, that means the secretary of state gets the final say and towns cannot postpone an election without his approval.

The N.H. Municipal Association has been lobbying hard against the negotiating committee report, and in support of the earlier House position. Representatives of the association said they believe no bill would be better than what passed the Senate.

Bail reform bill

House and Senate negotiators agreed on a bail reform bill, SB 556, despite the unanimous opposition of county attorneys.

The Criminal Justice Reform and Economic Fairness Act of 2018 would require judges to take income and ability to pay into consideration when setting bail for low-level offenses.

Low-level offenders charged with nonviolent crimes, with no evidence that they are a risk of not showing up at trial, would qualify for personal recognizance bail.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he is likely to sign the bill if it clears this final hurdle.

“There is passion on both sides of the issue,” he said. “I know the police chiefs are supportive of it. I intend to sign it. I want to look at the final bill to be sure, but I intend to sign it.”

‘Christmas Tree’ bill

Thanks to a variety of one-time circumstances, the state is on track to end the fiscal year with a hefty surplus, which lawmakers would like to use for several purposes.

The surplus spending package in HB 1817 includes $44.7 million to settle with hospitals over uncompensated care; $30 million for bridges; $12.7 million for state employee pay raises; and $10 million for the Rainy Day Fund.

Also to be decided are tax breaks for regenerative manufacturing; cancer coverage for firefighters; a foster parents bill of rights; and the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The goal is to finish all business in both the House and the Senate today, or to reconvene on Thursday.

The bills on today’s calendar reflect compromises made by House and Senate negotiators as they resolved differences in legislation that passed both chambers, but with amendments or different wording.

They must now be voted up or down as presented, with no amendments. If a bill fails in either the House or Senate, it is dead for this year.

Several bills simply “died on the vine” because House and Senate negotiators could not resolve their differences and come up with common language, including HB 372, defining resident and domicile for purposes of voting.

A virtually identical bill, House Bill 1264, has cleared both chambers and is headed to the governor, who has asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in on its constitutionality.

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