CONCORD, N.H. — More than 1,500 married, New Hampshire gay couples could be placed into a classification all their own if lawmakers succeed next year in repealing the state’s two-year-old law legalizing same-sex unions.
Legislation to repeal gay marriage is one of the highly charged issues left over from the just-completed legislative session that must be acted on early next year. The two proposed repeal bills would not affect gay marriages before repeal, but would stop new same-sex marriages.
Other high-profile issues coming back include a constitutional amendment to shift control of state school aid from the courts to the Legislature. Lawmakers also must realign political districts in keeping with census changes. The Senate also held onto a bill aimed at blocking the proposed Northern Pass transmission project.
Republican state Rep. David Bates, sponsor of one of two gay marriage repeal bills, wonders if New Hampshire had not put off its vote and repealed its law, New York Republicans who voted to legalize same-sex unions this month would have instead voted against it.
“The effect of us turning back (our) law may have given the Republicans who abandoned their party position in New York pause,” Bates said one email he received indicated.
Bates is confident a repeal bill will reach Democratic Gov. John Lynch, but he isn’t sure supporters have the votes in the House to overturn Lynch’s promised veto. If that happens, he will consider bringing the repeal bill back in the future when a governor who supports it is in office, he said.
Neither bill would change the status of gay couples who are married. Bates said he also supports reinstating civil unions.
New Hampshire enacted civil unions in 2007 and two years later replaced it with the marriage law. Since the marriage law took effect in January 2010, 1,529 gay couples have wed or had their civil unions converted into marriages, according to the state division of vital statistics.
Mo Baxley, executive director of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, believes lawmakers don’t have the votes to overturn a gubernatorial veto.
“We’ve had marriage equality for a couple years now. The sky didn’t fall. All those horrible things they said were going to happen didn’t happen. To undo and take it away this would create a mess. We could have some couples that are married, some couples that weren’t married,” she said.
If she’s wrong and the law is repealed, gay groups would sue immediately, she said.
“You can’t have two classes of citizens,” she said. “You can’t tell some gay and lesbian couples you are legally married and now some other gays and lesbian couples are forbidden from (becoming) legally married.”
Bates also has filed a proposed constitutional amendment to limit marriages to one man and one woman. He believes he has the three-fifths votes needed in each chamber to put it on the November 2012 ballot.
Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, believes voters are more focused on the economy and jobs than on gay marriage. Survey center polls have found that the public has moved on.
“The big thing is that as time goes by other states pass this legislation and we see that there’s not been any significant changes in the way the world works, and in New Hampshire there’s not been significant issues or problems that have come up because of it that a lot of people’s fears about legalizing gay marriage just aren’t there. They haven’t been realized so people don’t worry ab out it,” he said.
Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro says it is too early to predict what the Senate will do on the issue, but it won’t be the chamber’s top priority.
“The top priority was jobs and the economy and I think going into 2012 it is going to be jobs and the economy,” he said.
Bradley believes the most important leftover issue is a constitutional amendment to shift control over education funding from the courts to the Legislature. Giving the Legislature discretion will take pressure off business taxes to fund state school aid, he said.
“This sets the stage for certainty and stability which is what business leaders want to see,” he said.
But Bradley said he knows legislative leaders and Lynch — who all want an amendment — face a tough time persuading rank-and-file lawmakers to put one on the November 2012 ballot. Past efforts have failed repeatedly, sometimes in disagreements over a word or two that can change an amendment’s interpretation.
If it reaches the ballot, two-thirds of the voters would have to approve to change the constitution.
Smith said public interest in changing the constitution on the issue has waned over the years.
“Once people think that it has been fixed, they forget about it,” he said. “I don’t think the public sees the need for (an amendment).”
Bradley said the Senate will develop an eminent domain law in response to the Northern Pass project to carry hydroelectric power from Canada to New England that protects property owners’ rights without jeopardizing future energy upgrades needed by the region. The project drew hundreds to the Statehouse to protest the proposed route.
The project would build power towers to carry transmission lines along a 180-mile route from northern to southern New Hampshire and provide electricity for the region. Most of the project would use existing rights of way. It would include 40 miles of new construction in the northern part of the state, where the opposition is based. Many residents there fear that they would lose their pro perty to the project against their will. Others worry that the power lines would be an eyesore that could erode property values and hurt tourism. Some wonder if the project is needed at all.
Bradley said the Senate proposal will allow utilities to use eminent domain with restrictions if there is a public purpose.
“It really should only be used in a last resort. A premium should be paid if someone’s property is taken or impacted,” said Bradley.
Bradley said it is up to the utilities involved in the project to show more public benefits to New Hampshire. They might also want to move the northernmost transmission line further east, he said.
Next year, lawmakers also must set new voting districts for Congress, the House, the Senate and the Executive Council. State House districts will fall under new guidelines established by a constitutional amendment that will eliminate many large, multi-representative districts and replace them with single representative town districts depending on a town’s population. A 2006 constitutiona l amendment restored lawmakers’ ability to craft the smaller, single-member districts.
And they will once again debate whether to legalize video slots. The Senate held onto a bill that Bradley believes has a good chance of passing to the House where its prospects are less certain.
Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the bill’s prime sponsor, has argued for years the state needs the jobs and revenue from video slots. He says the state needs those jobs now more than ever. The Republican-crafted budget that just took effect eliminated perhaps 1,400 state jobs, he said.
“Economic recovery means the creation of jobs, not the elimination of jobs,” he said.