First, the Republican-controlled House narrowly passed a bill to study the effect of the Citizens United decision on New Hampshire elections.
Then, about an hour later, representatives reversed course and killed the bill.
Now, some Democrats and the advocacy group Open Democracy are crying foul, alleging that Republican leaders improperly lobbied members to switch their votes during a technology glitch that crashed the electronic voting system.
But others say nothing nefarious happened, rather the House took so many confusing votes on the bill Thursday that some representatives messed up and voted the wrong way. One Rockingham county Republican said he voted to kill the bill and thought he was sending it to interim study.
Either situation sets a bad tone heading into the 2016 legislative year.
Confusion among lawmakers over what exactly they are voting on doesn’t inspire much confidence when the House is poised to become a battleground for major issues, including reauthorizing the state’s Medicaid expansion program and tackling the drug crisis.
The bill at hand isn’t a very high-profile one. It focuses on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to money in politics.
The legislation would have established a four-member legislative committee to study the impact of the ruling on New Hampshire elections and review the all constitutional amendments on the topic pending in Congress. The group would then write recommendations for further action and send them to the state Legislature and the congressional delegation.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill last year. But the House Legislative Administration committee split over what to do with the bill. A majority recommended it get further study, while a minority suggested the House pass it.
On Thursday, when the bill made it to the House floor, it did pass at first, by a slim six-vote margin.
Then things got interesting. The electronic voting system went down. And in order to have a roll call on whether to reconsider the outcome, representatives had to state their votes out loud, one by one.
That took more than 20 minutes, and it’s during that time some members say Republican leaders tried to sway colleagues votes.
Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican, denies that.
“No order went out to the leadership team to do that,” he said. “Is it possible that someone spoke to someone? That is always a possibility.”
When the vote for reconsideration passed, the House reversed its position, voting down the bill by a tally of 159-144. Then representatives moved to kill it.
The switcheroo had some people scratching their heads. “We were blown away of what went down,” said Dan Weeks, executive director of Open Democracy, a state advocacy group that aims to reduce the influence of money in politics. “It certainly seemed a bit out of sorts.”
“It was an important bill to a lot of people,” said House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat. “Boy, they sure did a lot of work to make sure it didn’t pass.”
Jasper blames it on mass confusion. And that doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. None of the members who talked to Capital Beat and switched their votes said they were lobbied.
According to House voting records, Rep. Robert Rowe, an Amherst Republican, voted for the bill and then against it. He meant to do the latter, and isn’t sure why he voted for it in the first place. “I do not believe in establishing commissions or committees because they rarely do much good,” he said.
Rep. Phyllis Katsakiores, a Derry Republican, accidentally voted against the bill after voting for it. She thinks there’s too much money in politics, and it’s used for the wrong purpose.
“I really made a mistake . . . it was so confusing there for a while,” she said. “I support it, I just wish leadership had. They were dead set against it.”
Jasper thinks corporations are people, an issue addressed by recent campaign finance cases.
And while Republican leaders have been dead set against the bill, the lobbying is less certain. What is clear, lawmakers and leadership may want to make sure everyone is on the same page before a vote.
It was hard to miss the message that emerged from the first week of the 2016 legislative session: Lawmakers, stop embarrassing New Hampshire.
Over the last year, state representatives have made national news for a variety of topics: equating a red tailed hawk to an abortion provider in front a class of fourth graders, telling a colleague her nipple is the last he would want to see, heckling Hillary Clinton about her husband’s sexual impropriety during a town hall.
And top legislators made it clear last week, enough is enough.
Speaker Jasper, along with several state senators, made speeches urging lawmakers to treat each other with respect and take their roles as representatives of the state seriously, or else New Hampshire could face consequences.
Lawmakers haven’t been immune to controversy in the past, but the rise of the internet and social media makes it possible for statements to go viral and reach a global audience.
What to watch
The three substance abuse bills the Legislature plans to pass quickly by putting on a so-called fast track will get public hearings on Tuesday. Gov. Maggie Hassan is slated to attend.
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)