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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Capitol Watch: Conservatives targeting social issues, including gay marriage and abortion, with a bevy of bills

CONCORD – House Republican leaders have been clear about one thing this year: The social agenda isn’t dominating their thinking.

“Many of our members in the caucus feel very strongly about these matters, but they are not a top priority for us as a group,” said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem.

To no one’s surprise, House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, the former speaker, sees it differently.

“House Republicans are out of touch with the public sentiment,” Norelli said. “The majority should be focusing on job creation, but instead they are focused on social issues that will set women’s health care back decades.

“We must not allow their political ideology to be more important than reliable, quality health care for women.”

Norelli was mostly addressing the controversial move last week – endorsed by the House – to let any employer with a religious objection refuse to offer health care coverage that covers women’s contraception.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, offered this provision that the House approved 196-150, not nearly enough to overcome a near-certain veto from Gov. John Lynch.

O’Brien has stressed that the issue isn’t about contraception, but the desires of the Obama administration to control the health care market and the respect for religious freedom.

To make the point, O’Brien had a prominent female in his camp, Deputy Speaker Pamela Tucker, R-Greenfield, make the point for him.

“This stands up for our religious institutions that have long-held principles and teachings under assault, and for their religious liberties,” Tucker said after the House vote.

“Imposing anti-religious regulations on churches achieves no reduction of costs or availability of services,” she said. “It only serves to please those pushing a political agenda.”

It’s true that the House GOP issue agenda, with more than 40 bills, contains no social matters.

But there’s also no argument that many bills before the House would advance social conservative causes, from repeal of same-sex marriage to social engineering in granting public welfare and strict restrictions on legal abortions.

During a rally for repealing same-sex marriage, O’Brien stressed that good fiscal management, helping to create jobs and the economy are the primary tasks for this Legislature.

But erasing the 2009 law that let gay and lesbian couples marry is important, as well, he said.

“This is the right debate; this is the right time,” O’Brien said. “We must vote back and give traditional marriage back to our families and to our children.”

Even though they’re social conservatives, Republican gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne, of Manchester, and Kevin Smith, of Litchfield, have said voters aren’t as interested in these matters.

Prior to becoming a candidate, Smith ran Cornerstone Action, the in-state pressure group most responsible in 2010 for the Republican tsunami that swept many GOP lawmakers into office.

Under Smith, Cornerstone tried to pressure O’Brien into taking up same-sex marriage last year, but failed.

“It’s no secret how I feel about this issue, but this isn’t what is on the minds of most voters I meet with across the state,” Smith said.

“They want the next governor to be someone who can not only create jobs, but bring in some fresh, new ideas about how to make state government more efficient and user-friendly for our business community.”

And what of the 19 GOP members of the Republican-led Senate, many of whom are trusted social conservatives?

In fact, there are few social bills being offered in that chamber, and Republican senators have been encouraged instead to co-sponsor House bills.

By definition, the social issue agenda tends to take a larger role in the second year of a Legislature’s term, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats running the place.

To begin with, the state budget dominates the first year, and legislative leaders from both parties historically have discouraged lawmakers from pursuing social issues in that session.

Thus, by default, they come up in the second year, and that’s more to the liking of socially minded special-interest groups on both the left and the right. They would prefer these issues percolate into the public eye in the same year that lawmakers have to go before the voters.

And sometimes, as with same-sex marriage, these groups are willing to put a lot of money behind their message.

The National Organization for Marriage announced in February that it would spend at least $250,000 to try to pass the bill repealing same-sex marriage with a campaign of media advertising, telephone calls and mailings.

Sean Owen, chairman of New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality PAC, said no amount of financial horsepower is going to make this bill become law, which also would have to withstand a Lynch veto.

“Despite mailings, robocalls and the desperate pleas from the National Organization for Marriage in Washington, D.C., Representative (David) Bates couldn’t even muster up a respectable crowd,” Owen said in a statement.

While this issue has attracted plenty of attention, it has been in the slow lane politically.

Bates, R-Windham, the bill’s sponsor, has been working on an amendment that would make clear that the 1,800 gay couples who have gotten married would remain so even after repeal of same-sex marriage.

The proposed bill (HB 437) would instead permit gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

Bates said his work on legislative redistricting over the last two months delayed his efforts.

Critics maintain that the House leadership deliberately put this onto the back burner to give them more time to collect votes.

Not all conservative Republicans are sold on the idea.

Rep. Randall Whitehead, R-Nashua, a first-term member, said he’s against same-sex marriage but can’t support the bill.

“I believe we should support only traditional marriage, but I don’t think we should be in the business of taking peoples’ rights away,” said Whitehead, who said NOM’s postcard mailing generated many telephone calls to his home.

There’s also the libertarian Republican strain in this GOP caucus, which concludes that big government is wrong-headed whether it’s liberal or conservative.

This played a role in the House Judiciary Committee.

While it endorsed repealing same-sex marriage, it opposed having the government let any private business owner refuse to work at a same-sex marriage ceremony.

On abortion rights, social conservatives scored a big victory from the GOP Legislature last spring when it overrode a Lynch veto and required minor girls to notify a parent before having the procedure.

In 2012, there has been a bevy of anti-abortion bills – not just sponsored, but many that have received the endorsement of policy committees.

They include a ban on partial-birth abortion and any abortion done after 20 weeks, another that would require doctors to notify girls having an abortion about the potential of psychiatric trauma, and those that oppose public funding of abortions.

Legislative leaders recently learned that this campaign against groups such as Planned Parenthood of Northern New England could cost the state handsomely.

State health officials confirmed that a House-passed bill to cut off taxpayer financing for any group that performs elective abortions could put at risk the $700 million the U.S. government gives New Hampshire as its 50 percent share of the Medicaid program.

O’Brien has said he doubts whether such a threat from the Obama administration to cut off Medicaid financing would come to pass.

“Sometimes, when you allow conscientious objection or religious freedom to play in individual decisions, then the temptation is always to draw out what I call the ‘hypothetical horribles’ and say, ‘What if this, what if that?’ but those hypothetical horribles really don’t show up,” O’Brien told The Associated Press last week.

Lynch’s veto pen could stop many of these measures, but the voters in 2010 already succeeded in electing Republicans to Concord in historic numbers that reversed 35 years of a pro-abortion rights Legislature.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan) and The Telegraph’s interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.