New Hampshire House Denies Speaker Power To Jail Citizens

New Hampshire lawmakers voted last week to reject a proposal to provide the House speaker with the authority to put people in jail.

The amendment came during debate over a bill to create a committee to investigate the New Hampshire Local Government Center over allegations regarding the agency’s finances in relation to a local government insurance pool. The original bill's language provided the committee with the same subpoena powers as the full legislature, which the ways and means committee sought to change with a new amendment.

"The committee shall have the same investigatory powers as the general court. The committee may take evidence under oath, issue subpoenas duces tecum for records, and issue subpoenas to compel testimony," the proposal read. "A person shall have 5 business days to respond to any subpoena issued in accordance with this section. Upon approval of the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate, any person who fails to respond within the 5-day period may be fined up to $10,000 per day and may be subject to 5 days imprisonment."

The amendment failed 205-136, with House Speaker Bill O’Brien (R-Mont Vernon) casting only his fourth vote of the year, in favor of the bill. O’Brien’s spokeswoman, Shannon Shutts, said it was a coincidence that O’Brien was able to vote on the bill since he had stepped down from the presiding officer’s chair for a few minutes when the vote was taken.

"He was in the middle of taking a break," she said.

Shutts said O’Brien did not wish to retake the chair until after discussion of the bill was complete.

Harrell Kirstein, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said he didn’t think O’Brien’s absence from the chair -- and ability to vote -- was a coincidence.

"This is a bill that would give him the unprecedented power to imprison people and that’s when he was not in the chair," Kirstein said.

The language of the amendment has also been a point of contention between Granite State’s Republicans and Democrats. Shutts said the state constitution gives the legislature power to compel compliance with a subpoena and this was within those limits, while Kirstein said this was delegating the power to one person and not the full 400-member body.

The full bill passed the House with only four members dissenting, comes as part of the legislature's ongoing look into the fiscal practices of the Local Government Center. The dispute centers on the management of insurance funds for local government employees and retirees and a $100 million surplus in the fund. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardiner has already issued a report regarding the work of the center and it’s insurance programs.

State Rep. Jordan Ulery (R-Hudson), who offered the amendment, said the proposal came after dispute between the LGC and the state’s firefighters' union regarding documents the firefighters group said the LGC did not turn over when asked. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the firefighters union to compel the LGC to turn over documents being requested by the union.