While the Senate took its annual break last week, House members stayed in Concord to do their committee work although their weekly meeting of the full House was cancelled because of the weather.
The push is on to complete deliberations and votes on bills in each chamber that started there before "crossover day," Mar 28, except for the House budget bills. That means work on all bills that were proposed by House members need to be dealt with by the House by that date; same for the Senate.
Each week the Senate Clerk’s office produces the Senate calendar. This week it is 26 pages and contains a listing of all the bills scheduled for floor action along with notices of upcoming committee meetings. For Senators, staff, lobbyists and others interested in Senate activities, the calendar is the guide to what will be going on each week. It is easily accessed via the internet but many of us carry the yellow covered document with us all week.
The House, too, has its weekly calendar. With its blue cover, this week’s House calendar is 53 pages long. According to their calendar, the House will take up 115 bills when they meet on Wednesday. Important to note, however, is that 59 of the bills are on the consent calendar. Unless a member asks for a bill to be removed from the consent calendar, the 59 bills will be voted on as a block. The remaining 56 bills will all be voted on individually.
Likewise, the Senate has a consent calendar. Use of a consent calendar was a reform encouraged by Senate President Bragdon (Milford) in the last session. It was tried out in the first year and as Senators became accustomed to it, the consent calendar has become an accepted part of the process when the Senate meets each week.
This week, the Senate will take up 49 bills. Of that, 26 bills are on the consent calendar and 23 will be separately introduced on the floor and voted on one by one. Bills can only be put on the Senate’s consent calendar if the recommendation of the committee that heard a bill is unanimous and every committee member was there to vote. This insures that only non controversial bills end up on the consent calendar.
As the volume of bills introduced has trended upward over the years, the consent calendar is a valuable management tool while assuring that every bill introduced gets a fair hearing and a vote on the floor of the chamber in which it was introduced.
Committees in the Senate must finish work on bills with fiscal notes on them by Thursday. An "FN" is assigned to any bill which will impact the state budget or local finances either through an expenditure or tax or fee change. By having a deadline to deal with each FN bill in a policy committee and have a floor vote the next week, there will be a couple of weeks left for the Finance Committee to work on the financial implications of the bill and get it back for floor action before the Mar. 28 crossover day.
This week’s committee action will mean that next week’s Senate session, Mar. 14, could be a long one. Without the deadlines the legislature imposes upon itself, there would always be excuses to put off making decisions. That would make us too much like our brethren in Washington.
Senators will be watching closely how the House votes on the proposed state gas tax increase. The bill, House Bill 617, would increase the current 18 cents per gallon tax by 4 cents per gallon in each of the next three years (2013 – 2016) and then 3 cents in 2017 for a total 15-cent increase. The House Public Works and Highways Committee voted 18-0 for the increase.
Whatever happens this week in the House, the gas tax increase will likely hit a stone wall in the Senate. Senator Chuck Morse (Salem), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is adamantly opposed to the increase. He and Senator Jim Rausch (Derry), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, are co-sponsors of the expanded gambling through a casino bill (SB 152) that allocates some of the one-time $80 million license fee to road maintenance and construction.
There is general agreement that we need increased funding for our roads and bridges, both state and municipal, but the nearly doubling of the gas tax at a time when fuel costs are rising and the economy has not recovered from the recession may not be appropriate. A huge gas tax increase this year will be a very tough sell in the Senate.
I write often about the budget process given its importance to state tax and spending policy over the next biennium starting on July 1. Public input is valued by legislators and the House Finance Committee will hold a regional public hearing on the state budget on Mar. 18 from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the Sugar River Technical Center in Claremont.
The regional hearings provide any citizen with a chance to come forward to present their thoughts on the budget. One of the important benefits of the New Hampshire way of legislating is that individuals have many opportunities to be heard by their elected officials. Mar. 18 is one of them.