CONCORD — A bill that would make it easier for Secretary of State Bill Gardner to schedule New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on the fly could become hostage to a House-Senate dispute over campaign donations.
Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish, told members of a Senate committee he chairs that he's troubled a House panel has yet to pass legislation he wants that would make it legal for labor unions to give campaign checks directly to candidates.
Burling said this bill would level the playing field in response to a federal court decision that found a state ban on corporations directly giving money to a candidate violated free speech.
Ending this prohibition will lead to imposing reasonable limits on donations by all parties in time for the 2008 election, Burling said.
"We need to get this SB 91 bill moving again," he said.
Labor unions formed political action committees that in the 2006 election gave more money to Democratic candidates and party committees.
The presidential primary bill at issue would remove fixed deadlines for the filing of presidential delegates by candidates.
It permits those who want to vote by absentee ballot to preserve that right, even if the primary date is changed late in the process.
Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, said both are needed to tie up loose ends in the likely event Gardner schedules the vote earlier than the Jan. 22 date the Democratic National Committee wants New Hampshire to accept.
The Florida Legislature last week approved moving its primary to Jan. 29, which defies the DNC schedule that would not allow the state to hold a primary earlier than Feb. 5.
Gardner said the move increased the likelihood New Hampshire would be earlier than Democratic Party leaders wanted.
"I am hoping he goes early in January, not this December and not on Jan. 22," Splaine told the Senate Election Laws and Internal Affairs Committee.
Sen. Robert Letourneau, R-Derry, said he's concerned about the primary bill getting caught in the crossfire over campaign donations.
"I don't want the primary bill hung up," Letourneau said.
Burling said the state would lose a lawsuit if union lawyers challenged the ban on their direct donations, while allowing unlimited donations from corporations.
"I just think going into a campaign season as brisk as this will be with one group of people stifled, and another having freedom of speech, I just think it's a mistake," Burling added.