Capital Comments: Three surprises — redistricting, medical marijuana, biennial sessions

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

Last Wednesday was cross over day in the State Senate.  And as I drove home late that night, I reflected on three surprises from the day.

First, in the morning, before session or caucuses started, I wrote an email response to a constituent’s request that I vote to uphold the veto by Governor John Lynch of the bill to  change the 400 House districts to match up with 2010 census population numbers.

I told the constituent that Governor Lynch had only vetoed the bill the prior Friday and it would take a week or so for the House to act on the veto.  And if the House overturned the Governor’s veto, I predicted it would be another week before the Senate would likely be able to act.

How wrong could I be?  During our noon break for the caucus of Senators from my party I learned the House had already acted and voted to override the Governor’s veto.  And the Senate President told us the Senate would act on the veto that day, too.

A few hours later, the Senate voted 17-7 to override the Governor’s veto on House redistricting.  The tradition that seems to work well in practice is that each body, the House and Senate, write their redistricting legislation every ten years and the other body rubber-stamps it.

Next stop for House redistricting?  I am sure a lawsuit will be filed soon.

Interestingly, the Governor signed the bill establishing new Senate district boundaries that will be in place effective with the fall elections.

Another surprise was the vote to implement a medical marijuana program in New Hampshire.  If it becomes law, Senate Bill 409 would allow a person credentialed by a doctor, based on the seriousness or disease they suffer from, or their designated care giver to grow up to four marijuana plants.

The marijuana produced could be used for medical treatment to relieve pain, make it possible for a person eat or help them get through their last days.  The arguments mostly came from Senators in favor of medical marijuana who explained their personal knowledge of family members or close friends who benefited from using marijuana.

Opposition was led by Chiefs of Police Association along with others from law enforcement.  It was noted that federal laws, however effectively enforced, would still make marijuana possession illegal.

When the Senate session started, the vote for the new medical marijuana program was thought to be 12 to 12.  A tie vote means the motion, in this case a motion to pass the bill, would fail.  By noon, one Senator was uncertain which direction he would go and by late evening he decided to vote for the bill.  It passed on a vote of 13-11.

Next stop for medical marijuana?  Should the bill pass the House, the Governor has announced he will veto the bill.  In that case, the bill will come back to the Senate where a two-thirds vote or 16 votes out of 24 is required to overturn a gubernatorial veto.  I think proponents will find it tough to get three more votes to do that.

Then there was a debate about annual or biennial sessions.  There are frequent conversations about whether the legislature should meet every year in annual sessions as we do now or return to the “old days” when the House and Senate were required to only meet every other year.

The legislation before the Senate last week, CACR 33, would change the state constitution to have the legislature meet every other year in biennial sessions.  That is the way it was before the 1984 Constitutional Convention recommended that citizens vote for annual legislative sessions.  The voters agreed in the elections that fall.

In the “old days” of biennial sessions, in most years when the legislature was not supposed to be meeting, it was called back for special sessions.  The special sessions became the standard and a substitute for annual sessions.

Senator Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) is the only Senator to have served under both systems and is a vocal critic of the proposed legislation.  He reminded his colleagues that when he first served in the House of Representatives in the 1970’s the state budget was $200 million.  Today the general fund budget is more than $2 billion each year and total spending with federal funds and other money is over $4 billion annually.

Senator Chuck Morse (Salem) noted that we need to do the state’s legislative business differently.  To that point, several Senators have iPads on their desks instead of stacks of paper.  The new Senate consent calendar on which bills that have general support are put together and voted on as a group at the beginning of each session is working well.

Other Senators said annual sessions kept some people from being able to serve but the Senate’s dean, Senator Jack Barnes (Raymond), who has served for more than two decades, reminded Senators that he has seen “almost perfect attendance” by Senators over the years.

In the end, the proposed constitutional amendment received a vote of 14 to 10.  A constitutional amendment needs 15 votes to go forward.  The debate on annual vs. biennial sessions is over for now.  But the vote was surprisingly close.

Senator Odell represents New Hampshire Senate District 8:  Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.

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