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Who’s got the numbers?
Legislators play the majority game

06/30/11



Gov. John Lynch handed down some vetoes two weeks ago and the legislature promptly responded by overriding him on three measures, perhaps most notably a bill that would require doctors give parents 48 hours notice before performing an abortion on a minor. 
 
Lynch also vetoed measures that would have eliminated the Rail Transit Authority and comprehensively reformed the state’s retirement system. (The retirement bill was expected to be changed and Lynch said in a statement he preferred to work with a finished product.) Lynch also vetoed a measure that would have repealed the state’s minimum wage law and a bill that would have ended the requirement that new homes have sprinkler systems installed. Along with the parental notification bill, lawmakers overrode the minimum wage bill and the sprinkler bill.
 
The House and Senate passed a state budget for the next two years, and proponents of the bill were quick to point out that it passed both houses by a — wait for it — veto-proof majority. 
 
“It didn’t used to be framed that way,” said Donna Sytek, former speaker of the state House of Representatives. 
 
Lynch said last week he’d let the budget become law without his signature. He could have vetoed it, sure, but the threat from lawmakers was that if he did, they wouldn’t simply override his veto; they’d cut even more and hand it back to him. 
 
Arnie Arnesen, host of Political Chowder, suggested last week that Lynch may have made the right political play with his flurry of vetoes, that legislators were possibly starting to feel the pressure and that perhaps GOP leadership, specifically in the House, had gone too far. She said she thought some senators might be growing reluctant to stick their necks out on an override. 
 
Apparently not, or at least not yet. 
 
Loaded majorities
That three vetoes by Lynch were overridden in such a short time is certainly significant, but it’s probably more a product of the legislative makeup than anything else, Sytek said. 
 
Historically, the majorities at the Statehouse aren’t usually this lopsided. Overriding a veto would have been a much bigger deal in a different time. Republicans don’t need Democrats right now, of course, to do anything they want. 
 
During times of more normal party breakdowns, there would be several questions legislators would need to address to determine whether they’d support an override. Did they support their body’s leadership? Did they want to support the governor? And what about their party, Sytek said. 
 
Leadership would be working hard to round up votes to override a veto and subsequently a governor would be doing the same thing trying to sustain it. There might be some of that now, but the legislative mix suggests there isn’t much hand-wringing. 
With such big majorities, there’s more pressure on legislators to vote with leadership. And Speaker of the House William O’Brien in particular — say what you want about him — has plenty of support in the House. To a certain extent, whatever he says goes. 
 
The House has a “whip system” where there is someone on each committee in charge of polling committee members to see where they stand on a given measure. 
 
“If the majorities are closer, there’s a lot more begging and arm-twisting, by the governor and the speaker,” Sytek said. “The Senate is a smaller group and it’s easier to apply local pressure to senators.”
 
Right now, state politics are hyperpartisan. They were two years ago when Democrats held all the control, and they are now with the GOP at the helm. 
 
Every one is different
Sytek remembered an education funding bill that came through under governor Steve Merrill’s tenure. She said Democrats made a fuss about it and Republicans largely supported it. The measure passed, but then Merrill vetoed the measure saying the state didn’t have the money to fund it.
 
That left Republicans with a dilemma: do they stick with their party and go for the override or do they stick with their Republican governor? In the end, the veto override failed, Sytek said. 
 
Even governor John Sununu saw one of his vetoes overridden on a controversial “living will” measure. It passed the legislature with bipartisan support. Sununu vetoed the bill. But lawmakers found the two-thirds majority they needed to override it.
 
“Even a strong governor like Sununu,” Sytek said. “Lawmakers made personal decisions.”
 
In another measure during then-governor Jeanne Shaheen’s time in office, Shaheen vetoed a bill that would have created a dedicated a fund from liquor profits for treatment of alcohol and substance abuse. New Hampshire historically doesn’t like dedicated funds. But ultimately, without any institutional or party loyalty per se, lawmakers overrode the veto, Sytek said. 
 
Keeping the crew in line
With about 300 legislators in the House, these are good times for Republicans in New Hampshire. Prior to this session, though, many wondered how well O’Brien and his team would be able to keep them in line. With few hiccups, the answer has been very well. 
 
A bill that would enact right-to-work in the state has so far been the only snag in O’Brien’s tenure. Though the measure passed the House by a big margin, it wasn’t veto-proof. He recently told the Union Leader he’d wait possibly until the fall to hold an override vote.
 
“They’re on a mission,” Sytek said of House lawmakers.
 
Sytek said that during her tenure as speaker she remembered having 180 lawmakers who would be with her on most issues. But she needed 201 lawmakers on her side to pass legislation.
 
“Where were those votes going to come from?” Sytek said. “Who are you going to make a deal with?”
 
O’Brien has got a large, distinctively conservative Republican mix. 
 
“It’s not a tough sell,” Sytek said. 

 






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