Friday, April 6, 2012

League of Women Voters Day at the Legislature

When I lived in Hong Kong, I became active in the Hong Kong Chapter of the League of Women Voters. It wasn't a very large chapter, but we had interesting activities, including speakers and tours of things like the Hong Kong Landfill and the Executive Council. And since it was 2008 we ran Election Central, which was a place for Americans to gather and watch the election results. It was also a chance for Hong Kongers to watch democracy in action. It was a lot of fun.

When I returned to the US I started to become active in the Austin LWV Chapter, but we moved again fairly quickly. I joined the New Hampshire LWV, but there isn't a local chapter in Salem, and I had in my head that Concord and the other chapters farther north were very far away.

But this week I decided to take a chance. After all the signs on highway said Concord was only 30 miles away. It was time to check out the capital of my new state.

The LWV members were very friendly and welcoming. The purpose of this event was for members to get an opportunity to observe the legislature in action. The New Hampshire House of Representatives is unique. It has 400 members. They all serve 2 year terms, for a salary of $100 a year. Each district could have 4 or 5 representatives.

It was a committee day, and the committee meetings were open to the public. The League had selected a variety of bills that they thought would be of interest to the members, and we all selected which bill we wanted to observe. I asked to watch the Criminal Justice Committee debate the sentencing for something called the "Women's Right to Know" act. The bill required health care providers to read a particular script to women that wanted an abortion. It mandated a 24 hour waiting period between the script reading and the abortion. That part of the bill wasn't being discussed. At the last minute, however, someone had added an amendment to the bill making the penalty for not reading this script a felony. That WAS being discussed by this committee.

We walked over to the state house, a charming classic building with a gold dome, maybe a quarter of the size of the capital building in Austin. We walked right in to the main lobby, where there was absolutely NO security! No policemen, no metal detectors, nothing. Yes, one of the members informed me, it is completely legal to bring a gun into the New Hampshire state house.

We went up to the second floor, found the room where the committee was meeting, and claimed our seats. It was pretty crowded. There were 16 committee members, plus members of the press, lobbyists, and concerned citizens like us, all waiting impatiently for the committee to begin.

What followed was absolutely fascinating. I would say that most members of the committee thought making this a felony was a very bad idea, regardless of how they felt about abortion. But what they wanted to do about it varied wildly, and didn't necessarily adhere to what side of the issue they were on.

Some members wanted to let the amendment stand, and let the bill go on to the senate. Not because they thought it was a good bill, but because they thought that then the Senate and the Governor would almost certainly defeat the bill completely. Other members wanted to simply remove the felony, because then the bill would be more likely to pass. And some members contemplated submitted the bill to a study committee, because that was sometimes a good way to let a bill die.

The committee was overall very calm and judicious in their discussions. Several people from the public spoke before the committee; a leader of Planned Parenthood, a Women's Health advocate, an anti-abortion activist (naturally, that person was male). Some members of the committee tried to steer the discussion toward issues like "when does life begin" but by and large the committee chair made sure the topic remained focused on whether a felony was an appropriate penalty for this bill.

The committee ended up voting 8-7 to remove the felony punishment, and send the bill back to the House. I have no doubt this bill will undergo many more gyrations as it wends its way through the New Hampshire legislature and makes its way to the governor's desk.

At the end of the day I reviewed the party affiliation of the different committee members. The member that was most stridently pro-life, and tried to steer the discussion toward where life begins? A Democrat. The committee chair, that said quite frankly "this is a bad bill and the only reason it made it this far is that we don't have enough women in the legislature"? A woman, and a Republican. I love this state!

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