The Year That Never Ended
If the 2016 Legislative Session felt strangely familiar, it wasn’t your imagination. The two biggest issues of the year ─ the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion and the opioid overdose crisis ─ were actually major holdovers from 2015. Governor Hassan’s veto of the biennial budget in June of 2015 prolonged that session into the early fall. Negotiations produced a budget in September, but other issues remained. Medicaid reauthorization was still unresolved, as Republican lawmakers stuck to their position that Medicaid should not be part of the budget and should only be addressed in 2016, the year it was to sunset. And as the weather chilled, there were equally chilling reports that opioid overdose deaths were on pace to set records, resulting in bipartisan agreement that something had to be done. The governor called a special session in November, at which lawmakers set up a task force to review and recommend legislation for fast track action as soon as the 2016 session began in January. That task force finished its work just as the Christmas season beckoned. In early January, the new session began with more than 1,000 bills. The late winter months saw progress on many of the opioid bills, and spring brought positive news on the state’s all-important April revenue figures, which came in ahead of plan. With summer just ahead, legislators thought they were finished with the session on June 1. But the unexpected, one-vote defeat of a House bill that tangled state employee retirement health benefits within a bill calling for $1.5 million in local law enforcement funding for anti-opioid abuse efforts caused an uproar. The governor and House and Senate leaders called lawmakers back for an extra session on June 16 to address the law enforcement funding as a separate issue. At the one-day session, the House by a wide margin overturned their previous vote and appropriated the funding. The Senate quickly followed suit, and the governor signed the bill within hours. Lawmakers will come back in September to deal with any remaining governor’s vetoes.
Medicaid for the Masses
Backed by a coalition of business groups, insurance carriers and hospitals around the Granite State, and with the support of moderate House Republicans and Senate Republican leadership, reauthorization of the Medicaid program providing health coverage to more than 50,000 residents sailed a fairly calm sea to passage. The controversy came over the length of the extension, which supporters wanted to be permanent, and a work requirement that some lawmakers wanted added. The two sides compromised on the length of the extension, settling on two years. The federal government was almost certain to reject the work requirement, so the legislature, over the objections of opponents, modified it with a severability clause that will allow the program to go forward if the government gives a thumbs down to the work requirement. Voluntary contributions agreed to by the state’s largest insurers and hospital systems to offset administrative costs also played a large role in the success of the reauthorization, which was signed into law in early April.
To the Rescue?
There was never any question about whether the state would spend money to combat the opioid crisis. The questions were how and how much. In the face of about 400 deaths in 2015 and much publicity and outcry, lawmakers responded. Several of the “fast track” measures recommended by the special legislative task force formed last fall passed and were signed by the end of January. By session’s end, Governor Hassan will have signed about a dozen bills into law that will make changes to public school drug and alcohol education requirements, allocate money for individuals who need treatment, establish statewide drug courts and require updated opioid prescribing rules for providers. In addition, the Governor expanded the state’s drug take-back program, giving pharmacies the option of creating programs in addition to those already in place by local law enforcement agencies. One of the biggest bills appropriated more than $5 million for treatment and prevention, supportive housing and drug dealer prosecution. Some measures may take time to implement, but time is of the essence: by May, the official count of 2016 opioid overdose deaths already appeared to be on pace to set still another record.
Take Your Energy Pill
The legislature faced a plethora of bills on different energy issues in this year’s session. Major energy-related changes that became law included raising the net metering cap to 100 Megawatts, restricting the net metering tariff process, and adding biodiesel to the list of Class 1 renewables. The governor also signed into law a bill that will establish procedures for approval of proposals of energy infrastructure development and designate energy infrastructure corridors. Pipeline legislation did not fare as well: only one out of the dozen or more pipeline-related bills became law. That bill establishes a committee to study stranded costs as they relate to pipeline capacity contracts. Another bill would have established eminent domain regulations for pipeline land takings, but it failed in the Senate on the final day of the regular session. Outside of the legislative process, a major proposed pipeline transmission project for the southern part of the state was withdrawn by the developer late in the spring.
Business, but not as Usual
Lawmakers passed a number of bills aimed at improving the business climate. The measures included bills that clarify and simplify laws on banking, insurance and the real estate transfer tax. Businesses will have a new $100,000 cap on the federal Internal Revenue Code Section 179 deduction for capital expenses. The state will also update its tax code, ending the use of the federal year 2000 code to be more in line with current federal codes. On the step-up in basis tax, businesses will have a choice of taking the deduction on either the front end or back end.
Free Fly Zone
Drones remain basically unregulated at the state level after House and Senate lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a bill covering government and private drone use. The bill, which included provisions on surveillance, the need for warrants, privacy concerns and safety, died when House negotiators declined to agree to a Senate provision that gave business and industry an exemption, as long as their drone uses were compliant with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. The FAA rules remain the primary guidance for now.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Advocates of commuter rail service for the southern tier of the state were unable to convince lawmakers to accept $4 million in federal funding for preliminary studies related to bringing commuter rail from Massachusetts to Nashua and Manchester. The proposal was eliminated from Governor Hassan’s original Ten-Year Transportation Plan. Business leaders argued that rail service would support Manchester Airport and bring with it economic development, quality jobs and young workers who would rather commute by rail than by car. For dedicated advocates, however, hope springs eternal. The vote this time was closer than it has ever been, and next January there will be a new legislature with another capital budget up for consideration. Transportation Networking Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft got a green light from the legislature. They will have to abide by certain insurance and lien holder notification requirements, but the services will be fully legal as soon as Governor Hassan signs the bill. Residents who opt into the federal Real ID program will face less hassle with air travel and entry into secure federal buildings after the governor signed legislation offering a choice to participate or not. Those who do not to opt in will be required to provide other identification after October of 2020.
There’s Always Next Year
A number of familiar bills that have become almost fixtures before the legislature once again failed to gain favor with lawmakers. A bill to allow a single, high-end casino in the state died on the table in the Senate after several attempts to pass it ended in 12-12 tie votes. A bill to legalize video gaming and another to allow Keno gambling also failed this session. The death penalty remains the law after a repeal bill was tabled by the Senate. The state’s minimum wage will remain tied to the federal level after legislators turned back several bills aimed at establishing a higher state minimum wage. Several bills aimed at workplace changes also stalled, including bills on work schedule flexibility, workplace accommodations for breastfeeding and a bill that would have prevented employers from requiring most job applicants to reveal past criminal history in the initial application process. The legislature again declined to legalize recreational marijuana use, although lawmakers did pass a bill lowering fines and giving judges more discretion in cases involving possession of small amounts. And as she did last year, Governor Hassan stood by the need to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon when she vetoed two bills that would have repealed the requirement.
Goodbye to all That
No matter what happens in November nationally, there are going to be major changes in the makeup of New Hampshire’s elected offices when the 2017 Legislative Session opens. To start, the state will have a new governor. There will be no shortage of choices in that race, with 14 declared candidates spread between Republicans, Democrats, independents and Libertarians. There will be at a minimum two new executive councilors. At the very least, one third of the 24-member Senate will be new, as eight members have announced they will not be running again. The vagaries of the electorate will perhaps produce other changes in that chamber. In the 400-member House, where the numbers change significantly nearly every election cycle, the high passions at the national level could well produce more change than usual.
When legislators both new and experienced come to Concord in January for the 2017 session, the political world is likely to be a very different place. The nation will have a new president and the state will have a new governor. At the top of the legislative agenda, lawmakers will have a two-year budget to create, as well as possibly 1,000 or so bills to wrestle with. By the time the session ends around July 1 of 2017, it will probably feel like it lasted a full year.