CONCORD – Day One of what is expected to be a contentious session for the New Hampshire House had far less rancor that had been anticipated, but the divide in the Republican caucus remained crystal clear.
Rep. Bill O’Brien, the elected GOP caucus nominee for Speaker, was backed by 118 of 237 Republicans in his bid to force House Speaker Shawn Jasper to appoint him as the majority leader in place of the man Jasper appointed, Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline.
But 111 other Republicans joined with 148 Democrats and two independents in siding with Jasper and House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff to turn back the O’Brien proposal to amend the House rules. The vote rejecting the rules change was 260-120.
Jasper maintained that even if the measure had passed, House rules would have forbidden it from taking effect in the current session. O’Brien’s forces disagreed with that assessment, but in the end, it was a moot point.
Still, undaunted by the vote, which had been expected, O’Brien reconfirmed the New Hampshire Journal’s Tuesday report that he has named his own leadership team and will be looking for a House Republican Majority office, across the street from the State House.
“The next step is that the Republican caucus will remain in existence,” he said, noting – as the New Hampshire Journal reported on Tuesday – that he has appointed Rep. Steve Stepanek as Deputy Republican Leader and Rep. Pam Tucker as floor leader for the GOP majority caucus.
“We’re going to have training and mentoring programs and we will have an office likely across the street from the State House,” he said. “We’re going to fulfill our promise to the people of New Hampshire that there will be a Republican presence in the New Hampshire House.
“A speaker who has to look for 80 percent of his vote to the other party is certainly not going to alienate that party,” O’Brien said. “It is incumbent on the Republican majority caucus to stay strong, stay in existence and to push those issues that the people of New Hampshire responded to when they sent 60 percent of the Legislature as Republicans this past election.”
“I think that’s unfortunate,” Jasper responded. “We had an election to have a candidate for Speaker. There has been no vote on who is the Republican leader. I’ve appointed the Republican leader and we have a Republican leadership team.” As for today’s vote, “It is what it is, but it has no effect on the operation of the House.
“I believe Republicans will be united on votes on legislation,” Jasper said. “And that’s what really matters.”
O’Brien claimed victory when the House tabled, by a lopsided vote of 343-36, a proposed rule change that would have required 20 representatives to second motions for a roll calls, double the current requirement of 10.
O’Brien maintained said Jasper pulled back his support for the plan because Granite Staters opposed it strongly.
He said that Japser and Democratic leader Shurtleff “were trying to keep (constituents) from knowing what’s going on in votes in the Legislature. Their letters, their emails, compelled them to table that motion. For the people of New Hampshire, that’s a victory.”
Although the Jasper-appointed rules committee had recommended passage on a 10-0 vote, Jasper said Wednesday he agreed to have the plan tabled because, he said, “There was a lot of pushback.”
Concealed carry reinstated
The House voted, 228-149 to again allow members to carry concealed firearms in House. Concealed carry had been allowed when O’Brien was speaker in 2010 and 2011 but was banned when Democrats regained control of the House after the 2012 election.
Rep. Laura Pantelokos, D-Portsmouth, noted that weapons are not allowed in state courthouses, so they should not be allowed in the New Hampshire General Court.
But Rep. Fred Rice, R-Hampton, said it would be a move to protect House members.
“We have a right under the United States Constitution and the New Hampshire Constitution to keep and bear arms,” Rice said. “And there is important phrase in the Second Amendment that that right shall not be infringed. We have a right to do this in our daily lives every place else – to carry a concealed weapon for the defense of our own person.”
But Rep. Len DiSesa, D-Dover, a former police officer and former Deputy Police Chief in Portsmouth, said the proposal to allow concealed carry was “misguided at best and dangerous at worst.”
Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, countered, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, whether it’s a state trooper (stationed in the House gallery) or a state representative.”
Shurtleff noted that several years ago, a House member (Kyle Tasker) had a weapon drop out of his holster and onto the floor during a committee meeting. He said he did not want to witness such an incident again.
Electing leaders debated
Proposing the measure to have elected GOP and Democratic leaders, O’Brien deputy Stepanek said, “This House has set a new and very dangerous precedent. The will of the majority and minority caucus no longer matters. This rule change makes it clear that the speaker must respect the minority and majority caucuses.” He said there has been a series of “remarkable developments” because Jasper challenged O’Brien and became speaker with the support of mostly Democrats.
But Shurtleff said the speaker, regardless of party, should be allowed to select his or her own majority leader.
Having been majority leader in the last session, appointed by then-Speaker Terie Norelli, “I know there is a special relationship between the Speaker and the Majority Leader,’ Shurtleff said. “They share the same political values and agree on what legislation they feel is important to the people of New Hampshire. I urge this body to continue that practice.”
Rep. Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, noted that four years ago, when O’Brien was Speaker, the House elected its majority leader, then-Rep. D.J. Bettencourt, who eventually resigned for personal reasons.
“We had total dysfunctionality between the Speaker’s office and the majority office,” said Packard. “They didn’t’ communicate with each other. If that’s what you want, with this rule change, that is what you are going to get.”
Regarding the possibility of O’Brien setting up an office across the street from the State House, Packard said, “Come on. Let’s get serious…Let’s stop the nonsense.
“You can’t have two majority leaders,” added Packard. “That’s ludicrous.”
O’Brien said Jasper has made it clear he will not push bills he knows Gov. Maggie Hassan will veto and will “wait for Governor Hassan’s permission before he brings forward and supports any legislation.”
But Jasper said that is not accurate.
“Things that we know are not going to get anyplace and we know will have a negative effect on other agenda items, it’s not worth it,” he said. “You don’t reach out with one hand to a group and say, ‘Let’s work together,’ for instance on pension reform, and then take sharp stick and poke them in the eye with the other hand. And that’s exactly what right-to-work does, and knowing that it has no future in this session, let’s work on pension reform and get a bill passed that’s going to have a positive effect there.
“There will certainly be a lot of bills that we will move forward to the governor’s desk that she will veto,” Jasper said. “I’m not just going to roll over and play dead. But I’m going to look at the reality and what are the other items on the agenda that we need to move through and sign into law.”
Added Jasper-appointed Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler, “I assume we’ll just keep going right along doing what we plan to do in the traditional way of doing it, and they can do whatever they wish. It’s very unfortunate for the House and the Republican Party. It’s certainly very divisive. I can’t see a positive coming from it. But I just hope at least on the major issues, that we are able to get Republicans to vote for the things that we think are Republican ideals.”
Chandler said he did not believe the divide will affect the legislative work of the House.
“I don’t think everyone who supported electing the majority leader will necessarily fall in line with everything the other group wants to do,” he said. “I think we’ll carry the day with a lot of them because we’ll have a good sensible program.
“We do have a Republican agenda and I feel comfortable the majority of them will follow that,” Chandler said.
But overall, will there be confusion?
“Representative Jasper made a bad choice on organization day,” O’Brien said. “If there is confusion,we’ll do our best to negate it.”