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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In first legislative session starting Wednesday, House members won’t be seated by party

CONCORD – The 2013 business session of the New Hampshire Legislature is opening Wednesday in ways that could be a harbinger of things to come – blissful compromise on a fast-track bill and partisan infighting over a divisive issue.

Both resurrected House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, and Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, will have to navigate the next two years with a new governor and a closely divided legislative branch. ...

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CONCORD – The 2013 business session of the New Hampshire Legislature is opening Wednesday in ways that could be a harbinger of things to come – blissful compromise on a fast-track bill and partisan infighting over a divisive issue.

Both resurrected House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, and Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, will have to navigate the next two years with a new governor and a closely divided legislative branch.

Democrats hold a 221-179 edge in the House, while Republicans enjoy a 13-11 edge in the Senate.

This follows a tidal wave election that ended a 3-1 Republican supermajority that existed in both bodies since 2010.

Last week, Norelli underlined her desire to turn down the temperature of the debate by ending a near 20-year practice of segregated seating in the 400-person House of Representatives by political party.

Norelli said she believes having Democrats and Republicans sitting among one another could reduce the heated rhetoric that marked the previous two years under former House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett said his minority caucus was evenly split on the idea but he agreed in a spirit of comity.

Norelli is hoping to build on her hoped-for new era of good feeling – however long it lasts – by speed-reading and passing a bill that the Newfound Regional School District needs to allow reserve surplus to not count against a voter-imposed tax cap.

House and Senate Republican and Democratic lawmakers are on board with the measure and hosted a joint public hearing on the measure two weeks ago.

Norelli resisted at least one lawmaker’s request to tack a different noncontroversial issue onto the bill, fearing it could slow its obvious momentum.

“I am optimistic that the members elected to the New Hampshire House heard what I believe is the message of the voters – and that is common sense,” Norelli said last week.

Outgoing Gov. John Lynch said he’s planning to be able to sign the measure his last day in office, Wednesday afternoon.

“I hope that it proves to be a sign of the times that the last two years of division and rancor prove to be an anomaly “ Lynch said in an interview Monday afternoon.

“I’m very optimistic that the tone is going to change moving forward.”

But on Wednesday, the House is adopting its operating rules, and that’s sure to spark a spirited debate over ending the two-year freedom for lawmakers and the public to possess and carry concealed handguns in the chamber and adjourning rooms.

After becoming speaker in December 2009, O’Brien moved quickly to end the 40-year ban on gun possession, calling it a violation of Second Amendment freedoms as well as ignorant of the reality that some lawmakers have carried guns into the chamber for decades.

Norelli had made it her goal to reinstate the ban, and the House Rules Committee she appointed went along with all Democrats on board and all Republicans in opposition.

Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, promises a floor fight to try to convince the House membership to overturn its new leadership.

“There are a lot of pro-Second Amendment Democrats in the House, and I’ll be appealing to them,” Hoell said following the House Rules panel’s recommendation.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, said this is the right step to take, given that fourth-graders routinely are sitting in the gallery while the House is in session.

Many members of the public also protested Norelli’s decision to shelve two O’Brien-created committees, one to address grievances about state government brought by citizens.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Norelli maintained she will be less autocratic than former Speaker O’Brien was.

“That is not my style,” Norelli declared.

“Members are elected by the voters in their districts. While I may try to persuade them, it is their voters to whom they are responsible.”

Lawmakers will be kept busy with more than 815 bills on a variety of serious and not so serious subjects. Rep. Don LeBrun, R-Nashua, wants to curb abuse of electronic benefit transfer cards by making them “canary yellow” and containing a photo ID.

LeBrun says this will prevent the cards from being used by other people or to buy items such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, wants to prevent abortions when the heartbeat of the fetus can be detected.

House Democrats are pursuing several bills to undo GOP policies such as an education tax credit for private and religious school scholarships, the voter ID mandate and the “stand your ground” principle that permits citizens to defend themselves in public with deadly force.

On a lighter note, there are proposals to make red and yellow the official state colors and the potato the official state vegetable.

But debate and adoption of a new two-year state budget will dominate the 2013 edition as Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and legislative leaders struggle to make ends meet as state revenues slowly recover from the recession.

“The budget is the be-all and end-all this year, everybody coming to Concord has to recognize that,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, former chairman and longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Lynch said he remains optimistic that taxes and fees will recover enough to give Hassan and key legislators some room to fill more state needs than he could when 2010 revenues were down to 2005 levels.

“I’m not saying we will come roaring back, but the outlook is improving, and if Washington would get its act together, I think a lot of business money on the sidelines could start getting invested, which would be great for this economy,” Lynch added.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua
telegraph.com.

Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).