CONCORD, N.H. — A state lawmaker’s long-planned family vacation posed a problem for those who hope to defeat a parental rights bill that critics warn would curtail the privacy of LGBTQ students.
Democratic Representative Robin Vogt of Portsmouth announced Wednesday that he would be absent when the New Hampshire House takes a high-stakes vote Thursday on Senate Bill 272, a measure that would require schools to answer “truthfully and completely” when parents ask about their child’s gender identity.
“I will not be present to vote because I am on a family vacation that was planned back in 2022, one that is very important to me on several levels,” Vogt wrote in a series of tweets.
“Decisions like this are difficult for me; as much as I’d love to be all things to all people and in two places at once, some moments don’t always afford that luxury,” he added. “Family comes first, and walking away from this vacation would be detrimental to close family relationships.”
Vogt called himself a “loud advocate and ally” for LGBTQ people, and said he is “deeply sorry” to miss the SB 272 vote. But he was pilloried by fellow progressives who faulted him for planning a discretionary absence despite knowing well in advance that the legislative session would not be over.
One reply stood out from the rest and sparked a heated debate over the ethics rules that apply to state lawmakers. It came from Linds Jakows, founder of 603 Equality, a progressive group that has rallied opposition to the bill.
“No,” Jakows wrote in the since-deleted tweet. “It is a luxury to actively choose to be in Florida for nearly a week now, when there are funds to fly you to New Hampshire and back. It is a luxury to choose your own family when there are LGBTQ teens in shelters who have been kicked out by their own families.”
Republicans latched onto what Jakows said about the availability of funds for travel.
“I am outraged that an unregistered Democrat lobbying organization would offer to fund travel expenses for a legislator in order to influence the outcome of a vote,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Republican from Auburn, said in a statement.
“The ferocity with which these Leftist dark money groups will bypass ethics and the law to prevent parents from knowing what happens to their children in public schools should be a concern to us all,” he added, citing the provisions of state law that prohibit New Hampshire legislators from accepting gifts.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Republican from Londonderry, acknowledged Osborne’s accusation.
“We are looking in to the matter and are concerned about the appearance of impropriety,” Packard said. “Should there be evidence of a statutory or ethical violation it will be referred to the appropriate enforcement authority.”
It is unclear whether any funds were actually raised and whether Vogt accepted any offer. He has not walked back his statement announcing his planned absence.
Jakows pushed back against Osborne’s accusation, releasing a statement that said some community members had proposed crowdsourcing funds to get Vogt back to New Hampshire for the vote.
“As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in New Hampshire state law that prevents individuals from freely donating to help a state representative overcome a barrier that is preventing them from being present at session,” Jakows said. “I’ll remain focused on stopping this cruel attempt to further put LGBTQ teens at risk of abuse, homelessness, and suicide, not those who are suggesting mutual aid is a crime.”
Jakows told the Globe that they contacted the secretary of state’s office and attorney general’s office to seek clarity about the rules, but no immediate guidance was available. They said they don’t know whether anyone actually offered anything of value to Vogt, who has clearly indicated his intent to stay in Florida.
Vogt did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
House Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm, a Democrat from Manchester, said he is not aware of any members actually accepting gifts to facilitate their attendance.
“The GOP appears to be trying hard to manufacture outrage based on a vague tweet by an activist concerned about attendance,” Wilhelm told the Globe.
State law prohibits legislators from soliciting or knowingly accepting gifts, and the Legislative Ethics Committee has previously concluded that the prohibition applies to donations that are collected for the stated purpose of covering a lawmaker’s living expenses.
In 2005, the committee determined that then-Speaker Gene G. Chandler, a Republican from Bartlett, had violated ethics guidelines by accepting cash from various people through seven annual “corn roast” events that were organized to enable him to fulfill his leadership and legislative duties.
“Representative Chandler testified that without additional funds to supplement his income, he would have been unable to financially manage his legislative demands,” the committee wrote, noting that Chandler allocated the funds for personal costs, including transportation. (New Hampshire lawmakers earn $100 per year plus mileage, so serving in the legislature is effectively a volunteer role.)
The ethics committee recommended that Chandler be expelled from the House for the remainder of the term. Instead, he was censured. He also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
In the present case, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Justice referred the Globe’s questions to the speaker’s office.
New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said on Wednesday that Republicans were trying to “create a distraction from the vote that apparently they are about to lose.”
Republicans hold an incredibly narrow four-seat advantage in the 400-member House, so even a handful of GOP defections could sink SB 272, a partisan bill — but Democrats can’t afford to let attendance slip. If the bill passes, it will head to the desk of Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican who has said he views it favorably.
Steven Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterporter.