After honoring late Rep. Ellison NH House votes to kill his “dying wish” bill, expanding free and reduced lunch

Art Ellison

Art Ellison Francesco Bertocci, courtesy

New Hampshire Rep. Art Ellison from Concord (center)  listens to the discussion of one of the amendments to HB 2 on Thursday morning, April 6, 2023.

New Hampshire Rep. Art Ellison from Concord (center) listens to the discussion of one of the amendments to HB 2 on Thursday morning, April 6, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER

Sally Varney gets a hug from her friend, Rep. Muriel Hall outside the House gallery before the session that honored her partner, Art Ellison on Thursday morning, April 11, 2024. Ellison’€™s daughter, Anna Bates is in the background. Varney and Bates were given stickers that said, ‘€˜Feed the damn kids.’

Sally Varney gets a hug from her friend, Rep. Muriel Hall outside the House gallery before the session that honored her partner, Art Ellison on Thursday morning, April 11, 2024. Ellison’€™s daughter, Anna Bates is in the background. Varney and Bates were given stickers that said, ‘€˜Feed the damn kids.’ GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

State Representative Mel Myler (center) speaks to the House about his friend and colleague, Rep. Art Ellison, on Thursday morning, April 11, 2024.

State Representative Mel Myler (center) speaks to the House about his friend and colleague, Rep. Art Ellison, on Thursday morning, April 11, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Sally Varney (center) puts her hand on her heart in the House gallery during the session which honored her partner, Art Ellison on Thursday morning. Joining Varney, from left is Abby Bates (Ellison’s granddaughter); Anna Bates, his daughter. And Varnery’s two daughters, Jill and Sarah, to her left.

Sally Varney (center) puts her hand on her heart in the House gallery during the session which honored her partner, Art Ellison on Thursday morning. Joining Varney, from left is Abby Bates (Ellison’s granddaughter); Anna Bates, his daughter. And Varnery’s two daughters, Jill and Sarah, to her left. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 04-11-2024 5:30 PM

Modified: 04-15-2024 1:17 PM


The last time Anna Bates figured she was in the State House was for the annual field trip all New Hampshire fourth graders take.

As she took her seat in the gallery Thursday, the cacophony on the House floor, and jargon that goes with it – voice votes, division votes, roll calls – was unfamiliar. Yet, her father’s passion for his legislative work was easy to distinguish.

She came to the House gallery that day in hopes that legislators would carry out the dying wish of her late father, Art Ellison, and pass House Bill 1212, to expand eligibility for free and reduced lunch. He died last month, at the age of 80, while serving in the state legislature. For the last six years, as a member of the House Education Committee, he’d championed different attempts to feed school children, but to no avail. This was the latest version.

From the House gallery, Bates took her seat next to Sally Varney, Ellison’s longtime partner. To Varney’s left sat her two daughters, Jill and Sarah, with their kids in tow, too. They’d all gathered today to see the work of their Dad, Grandpa and partner in action. He was the only piece missing.

Outside the House gallery, Rep. Mel Myler, a Hopkinton Democrat, greeted Bates, Varney and their crew. He’d become a familiar face over the last few months, visiting the hospice house at the Granite VNA and spending Ellison’s last night by his side.

He walked them through the House procedures – they’d come for a full show that day. There’d be the opening prayer, pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. Then, Myler would take to the microphone to honor his late friend and colleague. A bagpipe performance to celebrate Tartan Day and remarks from the General Counsel of the Republic of Korea would follow. Then the House would get to work on the day’s votes.

In his hands, he had stickers for the family. On the floor, many House Democrats had them proudly affixed on their chest.

In a blue and white circle, was a quote from Ellison, “Feed the damn kids.” Below, it read “Pass HB 1212.”

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Bates stuck it to her blue shirt alongside another sticker she saved from Ellison’s celebration of life last Sunday. That one featured a photo of her father in a white circle. It too read “feed the kids” across the top, with a red heart at the bottom.

Abby, her daughter, peeled the backing off and stuck it on her plaid shirt, too. At 11, she’d played hooky from school this morning. But now she had a front row seat to democracy in action.

“Do you think they’ll pass it?” she asked her mother before they took their seats in the gallery.

“I hope so, I really do,” Bates replied.

Outside the gallery, Rep. Muriel Hall, a Bow Democrat, gave Varney one final hug before heading to her seat on the floor. She, too, visited Ellison daily in hospice and served alongside him on the House Education Committee.

Between herself and Myler, they thought they had the votes to surpass the House Education Committee recommendation to kill the bill.

But first, they’d honor their late friend’s legacy.

With his head down, hands gripping the podium, Myler began his tribute. Behind him, Hall and other representatives filed in.

“He told me that all he wanted to do was give voice to the voiceless… talk about feeding kids, he was a master advocate,” he said. “When he got knocked down on a vote in this House he didn’t cower to the opposition. Oh no, he came at them again.”

Now, his colleagues will have to continue to do that on his behalf.

Hall made the case for Ellison’s bill on the floor, to support vulnerable students and families. She also wanted to offer an amendment, increasing the eligibility threshold to 250 percent, instead of 350 percent of the federal poverty line, to cut state costs.

But Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican, said the cost to do so came at the taxpayers’ expense, with competing fiscal reports in committee estimating the cost anywhere from $50 to $100 million.

The House voted in line with Ladd, tabling the bill on a 192-191 vote. Speaker of the House Sherman Packard cast the deciding vote.

From the gallery, Bates sighed and gathered her things. Their group filed out of the gallery seats in silence, as the House broke for lunch. That was the end of Ellison’s dying wish for this session. At least, for now.

“I’m just gonna say that was a huge mistake,” said Susan Ford, a former state representative, to the family as they gathered their coats. She, too, served with Ellison in the House one term from 2018 to 2020. “It’s a shame.”

But similar legislation had failed before. That didn’t stop Ellison from introducing it again, and again. And Varney knows that his colleagues will pick up right where he left off.

“Art won’t let us stop.”