My "Part-Time Citizen Legislature" Editorial Response

Foster's Daily Democrat; October 19, 2011

commentary by Timothy Horrigan; October 22, 2011

This is an op-ed I wrote for the Dover, NH Foster's Daily shortly after a somewhat pointless session day where we passed several bills which will go nowhere because the Senate is not coming back into session. The paper chose the rather generic title.

Original URL:

A part-time citizen legislature

My father, James Horrigan, passed away on Sept. 25, and my family and I thank everyone who helped us deal with our loss. Like me, he served in the New Hampshire House: he represented the same district I represent (Durham. Lee and Madbury.) While fact-checking his obituary, we found that he was officially listed as having served during the 1975 and 1977 sessions, having been elected in 1974 and re-elected in 1976.

He served before a 1984 constitutional amendment which established annual legislative sessions. During my father's service, the state constitution called for one six-month legislative session per biennium. We should consider going back to the old schedule, even if it was not always followed. During my father's first term, the governor and Executive Council called for a special 1976 session. During my father's second term, the rules were suspended to allow the 1977 session to drag on into the fall (much like the 2011 session.) The 1977 session didn't end altogether until June 1978, when the General Court convened for a "veto day."

This brings me to the subject of this paper's Oct. 14 editorial titled, "N.H. Senate needs to do people's business," attacking the members of the state Senate for not coming back into session. Our Senate, like our House, is a part-time citizen legislature. Most of them are still pursuing other careers. Even the retired ones are very active in their communities. They all have plenty of work to do even during the offseason.

It is customary for both chambers to meet in the fall for a "veto day" sessions. The Senate held its veto day on Sept. 7. In addition to overriding two vetoes and sustaining four others, the Senate suspended its rules to allow itself to pass a bill. SB 198 calls for a technical change which will save the state an estimated $2 million a quarter. The House met for its first veto day session on Sept. 14, and did not pass SB 198 then— which is to be expected since the Finance Committee hadn't held any hearings on it yet.

During the committee process, Speaker Bill O'Brien tacked on an nongermane amendment to SB 198 which would abolish marital masters. These are court officials who specialize in divorce and child custody cases. On its own merits, this amendment is bad legislation. The marital masters make tough decisions, and not too shockingly, not everyone agrees with every decision. There was an effort in 2010, which will be repeated in 2012, to remove at least one specific marital master from office. There are changes which could be made, but the marital master program is a good one which should be strengthened, not abolished.

This amendment is part of a larger effort to undermine the independence of our judiciary. The House majority leadership stated that this amendment was needed because the judicial branch allegedly acted in bad faith by renewing marital masters' contracts in April 2011, supposedly in violation of provisions in HB 2 (the "budget trailer bill" which makes changes to state law needed to implement the budget.) HB 2 had not passed yet: it is absurd to try to punish officials of a coequal branch of government for violating legislation which had not been passed yet. (Not only that, the abolishment of marital masters wasn't actually part of what the House passed on March 31, 2011. This was added later in the budget process.)

The future of the marital master program is an issue which can (and will) be fully debated in an orderly fashion during the upcoming 2012 session. There is no good reason to hold a good bill on an unrelated subject hostage, especially a bill which saves millions of dollars.

The House met for a second veto day session on Oct. 12. O'Brien's amendment passed, but only after a very questionable voice vote where the Speaker failed to wait for the no votes, and also failed to hear several calls for a recorded vote. The amendment effectively kills SB 198, since the Senate has finished its work for the 2011 session.

Ironically, even after multiple veto days, the House still has several vetoes left. The Speaker has been especially slow to deal with HB 474, the "Right to Work for Less" bill. He strongly supports this bill, but he does not have enough votes to override the Governor's veto. That veto came way back on May 11, 2011, and a vote could and should have been held in May or June during the regularly scheduled session.

State Rep. Timothy Horrigan
D-Strafford 7

I spoke to SB 198 on the floor on October 12. Here are my prepared remarks. These are not exactly the same as what I actually said. On the floor, I added two or three points which are also covered in the op-ed piece:

Remarks about SB 198

Timothy Horrigan; October 12, 2011

If passed in its original form, SB 198 will save the state a large sum of money. There is some uncertainty over the exact numbers, but the savings will certainly run into the millions. To paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen: a million here and a million there and pretty soon we're talking real money.

If this House amends SB 198, we have to rely on the Senate agreeing to come back before we can even have a conference committee. They don't have to come back.

If we pass SB 198 as is, without the amendment, then the bill goes straight to the Governor's desk. That is reason enough to kill the amendment.

The process by which the amendment came be attached to SB 198 was flawed. Yes, it is not against House rules to stick a non-germane amendment on a Senate bill, and yes this tactic has been used before, by both parties. But it's a bad tactic, especially when there is plenty of time left to deal with the issue. That's another good reason to kill this amendment.

But there is an even better reason to kill the amendment. This amendment is bad legislation. The Marital Master program is far from perfect. I know from my work on the Petitions & Redress Committee that not everyone is pleased with every decision the Marital Masters make. But that is no reason to kill the whole program. These Masters serve an invaluable function: they specialize in making what are the most difficult decisions our courts have to make. We shouldn't be destroying the Marital Master program: we should be strengthening it.

This amendment is, I am sad to say, part of a larger campaign to undermine the independence of our judicial branch, We shouldn't be undermining our judiciary, we should be strengthening it. There are many changes which need to be made, but we can make them in an orderly and transparent fashion after a full debate.

Please vote against this amendment.

See Also:


The Forgotten Liars