BACKGROUND: House Speaker William O’Brien orchestrated a surprise vote to override the governor’s veto of the House redistricting plan this week.
CONCLUSION: Chalk this up as the latest example of the speaker behaving badly – and possibly violating the state constitution to boot.
If anyone needs a fresh example of the blatant disregard for civility and fair play so common in government today, we offer up our speaker of the House of Representatives as Exhibit A.
No stranger to procedural controversy during his first 18 months in leadership, Rep. William O’Brien, of Mont Vernon, did it again Wednesday when he thumbed his nose at House protocol – if not the New Hampshire Constitution – in calling for an unscheduled override vote of Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the House redistricting plan (HB 592).
After fighting back a procedural challenge by outraged Democrats, the House voted to override the governor’s veto by the necessary two-thirds margin, 246-112. On Thursday, the Senate followed suit, 17-7, making the House redistricting plan law.
This is the same plan that deprives Hudson and Pelham of their own seats – they will share 11 under the new law – even though they were deserving of seven and four, respectively, based on their populations.
In calling for the vote, O’Brien appears to have run afoul of the state constitution, which says the governor’s veto message should be printed in the legislative body’s journal prior to an override attempt.
Specifically, Part II, Article 44 of the state constitution states that if the governor vetoes a bill, “he shall return it, with his objections, to that house in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it.”
In order to get around that, O’Brien halted proceedings Wednesday to call a 30-minute private caucus with House Republicans, during which he distributed a written opinion from House legal counsel Ed Mosca. The opinion concluded that the speaker has the authority to take up the governor’s veto, though the House could choose not to do so by a majority vote.
Upon learning of the speaker’s intent, House Democrats asked for a 15-minute break to caucus on their own, certainly a reasonable request under the circumstances. Of course, their request was denied. Nor were they allowed to see a copy of Mosca’s legal opinion prior to the vote.
And as would be expected in a chamber where they are outnumbered by a 3-1 margin, the Democratic objection to the speaker’s decision failed by a lopsided 255-97 tally.
“I am at a total loss to understand why (O’Brien) continues to break Houses rules, to violate the constitution, to make up his own way of doing things day after day,” House Minority Leader Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, told the Portsmouth Herald after the vote.
Given Norelli knows full well why the speaker does what he does, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt she was speaking rhetorically.
So is this much ado about nothing? We don’t think so.
By telling reporters and others Monday that he didn’t intend to bring Lynch’s veto forward this week, O’Brien may have deprived some lawmakers the opportunity to participate. Of the 397 House members now serving, 39 were absent for a vote that exceeded the two-thirds margin by eight.
What’s worse, the unannounced vote also denied municipal officials – particularly those in communities like Hudson, Manchester and Pelham that share seats – one last opportunity to persuade their lawmakers to sustain the governor’s veto in hopes of a better deal.
But that no doubt was the speaker’s plan all along, yet another example of an ends-justify-the-means philosophy that is giving our state government a bad name.