In 2021, a group of state representatives angled to have a bill reforming New Hampshire’s state of emergency laws included in the state budget. It became the single issue that the budget debate hinged on. We were partially successful but not completely. A new bill that would fully codify our goals was drafted before the final budget vote in June 2021 and agreed upon by the governor and House and Senate leadership.
This bill was fast-tracked in 2022 but ultimately vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, despite unanimous Republican support in both chambers and bipartisan support in the House.
The law we passed in the budget currently states that after three 21-day renewals of a state of emergency, the legislature must meet to vote on terminating the emergency. This means that both chambers must agree to terminate.
However, an emergency requires a bending of the Constitution. It places enormous power in the hands of the governor, including the ability to suspend and override the law. This accumulated power could be abused and misused in the wrong hands and is precisely what our founders often warned against. The vetoed bill in 2022, HB 275, simply stated that after three 21-day renewals of a state of emergency, the emergency would terminate unless both chambers voted to extend the emergency longer.
In a true emergency, we do not doubt that the Senate, House, and governor would all agree to continue a state of emergency. But if one chamber does not agree that an emergency still exists, then likely the emergency has become political, and one party or group of people wants the governor to retain dictatorial powers.
This year, HB127 was introduced with the same language as the vetoed HB 275 from last year. It was added to HB 2, the budget trailer bill, in the House. HB 127 was killed in the Senate last month, and we recently discovered that an amendment passed Senate Finance a few weeks ago that stripped state of emergency reform out of the budget. It baffles us as to why Senate Republicans, who supported this identical bill last year, have gone out of their way to kill it not just once but twice this year.
We still do not understand why Gov. Sununu vetoed the original bill, especially after he had previously agreed to the language, and it certainly isn’t an issue that would damage him politically. We suspect he feels the bill is a personal attack on his handling of the COVID pandemic, and while we’ve been vocally critical of the entire COVID response from practically every state in the country, this bill was not a reflection on Gov. Sununu.
The COVID pandemic was the first time our state of emergency laws had been tested, and we saw they could be abused in the wrong hands and felt that more legislative oversight was necessary. One needs only look to North Carolina, where the Democrat governor declared a state of emergency in an attempt to overpower a school choice bill being pushed by Republican lawmakers, to see how dangerous this type of authority could become.
In the words of James Madison, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, may be justly pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
It appears it is “Groundhog Day” again in New Hampshire politics as the budget fight once again heats up over state of emergency reform. Will this be the issue that ultimately takes down the budget, particularly in a term with a historically tight Republican majority in the House?
We guess we will have to wait and see, but we will end with a suggestion to the Senate: put HB 127 back in HB 2, and you have a significantly better chance of passing a budget this year.