2018 Legislative Session Highlights in New Hampshire
It was harder than we thought
With no biennial budget to create, many within the political ring around Concord thought the 2018 session might be relatively easy. Legislative leaders had cut a month off the usual length of the session in anticipation of an early end to business and a jump start on the campaign season. But the docket of more than 1,000 bills contained measures on Medicaid expansion reauthorization, paid family and medical leave insurance, school choice, voting rights, energy policy and a host of social issues that included firearms, the opioid crisis, marijuana legalization and a proposed victims’ rights constitutional amendment. The combination of a full slate of bills, some controversial issues and a sprint toward the early end date had many legislators feeling glad to leave Concord in their rear-view mirror at the end of May.
Reauthorization of the Medicaid expansion program that provides health insurance to about 50,000 low income residents is no longer a question, but a reality. The final product included a five-year extension, changes to the funding mechanism, a new name and a work requirement for most recipients. New Hampshire became the fourth state to get the work provision approved with Medicaid eligibility, something the federal government had been reluctant to do in the past. The bill proposing the extension was widely seen as the one that would potentially bring the most debate of the session, but the seas it sailed were somewhat less stormy than had been forecast. Senate lawmakers worked hard to craft a measure that would win over doubters, mostly in the House, who criticized the bill for continuing what they deemed to be failed national health care policies. In the end, the legislation encountered less resistance than had been expected and ultimately passed the House on a voice vote. The governor has yet to sign the bill, but he has been vocal about his support from the very beginning.
Wood that we could
Ending weeks of speculation, Governor Chris Sununu vetoed two out of three major renewable energy bills, saying they would have cost ratepayers more than $100 million over the next three years. The most sweeping of the two vetoed bills would have increased from one megawatt to five megawatts the size of projects that qualify for net metering, the process that gives credits to homeowners and small businesses that generate their own electricity. Critics in the business sector said the bill was a subsidy for large-scale generators, whereas the net metering program was intended to help small-scale generators. The more expensive of the vetoed bills would have required Eversource to give a 20% discount off retail rates to woodburning plants over the next three years. Supporters said the plants are key to timber industry jobs, while opponents in the ratepayer, business and utility sectors said the bill would drive up already high energy rates by roughly $25 million per year while jeopardizing overall job growth. Governor Sununu signed the third bill, which suspends the cap on a plan that keeps the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin operating, thus giving the Public Utilities Commission time to find a more permanent solution. There was bi-partisan support for the vetoed bills in the Senate, and that chamber may have enough votes for an override. The House is too close to call, however, as the two votes on the bills were very close to the two-thirds necessary for override.
It didn’t take long for the promised benefits to begin to take shape after passage of a bill creating a temporary business tax exemption for companies and a loan forgiveness program for some employees involved in the emerging regenerative manufacturing industry. Even before Governor Sununu signed the bill into law, several out-of-state entities announced plans to locate here and work with industrialist Dean Kamen’s Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI). The Defense Department had already provided seed money, but legislative approval of the tax proposals added all-important momentum to the project. Kamen’s initiative has the goal of making New Hampshire the hub of efforts to raise regenerative manufacturing of human organs and tissue to a commercial scale.
No to Marsy’s Law
Crime victims, families and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald offered testimony in favor. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill, and it had the support of Governor Sununu, but the proposed victims’ rights constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law failed to garner enough backing to carry it through the House. Supporters believed the proposed amendment attempted to level the playing field between victims and perpetrators by adding victims’ rights to the New Hampshire Constitution. Opponents claimed the bill went too far, leading to a potential erosion of a defendant’s right to due process. After several weeks, a joint committee failed to recommend passage, and the full House sustained the recommendation a week later. Advocates have vowed to keep pursuing the matter in hopes of putting it before voters in the future.
Keeping the death penalty
Governor Sununu kept a promise and vetoed a bill repealing the death penalty. The measure passed both chambers, but not nearly by margins that would allow for a veto override. The governor said he respected the opinions of those who favor repeal, but that he stood with crime victims, families and law enforcement on the issue. New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939, and there is only one person currently on the state’s death row.
There’s always next year
Offered up in the 2017 session, the paid family and medical leave bill was held over for more study into 2018. This year, the bill made its way through three House committees and three votes on the House floor, including one that overturned a committee recommendation. In the Senate, questions about the solvency and certain aspects of the design of the program, as well as veto threat from Governor Sununu, sent the bill to interim study. The bill was widely supported in concept, but the Senate was divided along party lines as to whether it would work as designed. The bill is certain to be back next session.
Let it be
A controversial school choice bill that had been retained from 2017 and had the support of Governor Sununu and majority party leadership was sent for more study by the House. The bill would have created an education savings account that parents could use for a variety of educational choices, including home and non-public schooling. Supporters said it promoted school choice for parents of children who have difficulties in public school. Opponents insisted it was a voucher bill that would downshift educational costs to municipalities. At session’s end, the bill reappeared as a Senate amendment to another bill. A committee of conference might have smoothed out differences and paved the way for passage, but a slim majority of House members were content with more study and consideration of the late amendment failed by a handful of votes.
On the road again
The state would set rules for the testing of autonomous vehicles under a bill that was agreed to in a committee of conference. A House bill establishing a framework for testing was merged with a Senate proposal to study overall autonomous vehicle issues. Legislators will use the study to continue to gather information over the next four years, but initial licensing and other regulations will go into effect in 2019. Additionally, a bill that would provide more revenue for highway maintenance by establishing special road usage fees for the owners of high mileage and alternative fuel vehicles will be studied for possible consideration next year. Senators sent the bill to study after Governor Sununu said he could not sign the bill as written.
It’s all about the Benjamins
Fiscal year revenues were up, unemployment was down and the Rainy Day fund was brimming. Being the second year of the biennium, there was no budget to debate. Several businesses announced expansions and there was news of potential new industries moving in. On top of that, there was a surge in tax revenues that resulted from businesses bringing more revenue home from overseas in response to federal tax law changes. All good. But when it comes to state revenues, there is always something to worry about. In this case, a “Christmas tree” bill drew the ire of some conservative House members by appropriating millions of non-budget dollars. Legislative leaders and the governor saw the bill as an opportunity to make responsible use of windfall revenues to fund some of the state’s more pressing needs. The bill was trimmed of some provisions, but the major items survived. The final bill came in at $102 million and included about $22 million in each of the next two years for uncompensated care payments to hospitals, state employee contract agreements worth $13 million, $10 million to the Rainy Day Fund and about $30 million for repair of red-listed bridges and local roads. The governor signed the bill into law on June 8th.
I think I can, I think I can, I think I can
Like The Little Engine That Could, New Hampshire commuter rail advocates are not about to give up after language relative to funding the project development phase of the Capitol Corridor commuter rail plan was narrowly defeated this session. As it has been in the past few years, the proposal to spend $4 million in federal funds to provide a detailed analysis of the potential rail project was turned down. The House amended the rail proposal to include a commuter bus service study before the Senate ultimately voted to strip the idea entirely from the Ten-Year Transportation Improvement Plan. Supporters of expanded commuter rail service remain undeterred and promise to build on momentum gained this year to gather additional support and find the most effective path forward for the project.
A look into the crystal ball
Less than six months remain before the November mid-term elections. Much can, and undoubtedly will change in that time. Prognostications offered today may well disappear in a puff of smoke by the time the leaves fall. The big question on the state level is, to what extent – if at all − will the goings-on in Washington affect State House races? At this point, a case can be made either way. All state-level elective offices face elections. Republican Governor Sununu currently enjoys the level of popularity that usually translates into reelection for a governor. Two Democrats, former state Senator Molly Kelly and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, have announced their bids to challenge Sununu. Two Libertarians are also running, a factor that has the potential to have at least a marginal effect on Republican vote totals. The Executive Council, New Hampshire’s unique “fourth branch” of government, is currently 3-2 Republican. The council members also face re-election, but one of them, Democrat Chris Pappas, is leaving to run for Congress. In the legislature, the possibility of a flip in control from one party to the other exists in both chambers, should the winds of change blow that way in November. The state Senate is currently 14-10 Republican. The numbers are close, but the current majority appears likely to hold. Two senators are leaving. Democrat Betty Lasky of Nashua is retiring, while Republican Andy Sanborn is leaving to run for the 1st Congressional District. The House is more subject to the vagaries of the electorate. There are 400 members, and the GOP holds a 44-seat edge right now, with three Libertarians. At this writing there are also fifteen vacancies. About 20 seats would have to flip to give the Democrats the House. But without a veto-proof margin in both chambers, Democrats could have difficulty advancing their agenda if Governor Sununu is reelected.
Although direct legislative action on bills ended on May 24th, the 2018 session is not entirely over. There are bills in interim study, and committees will deliberate on them through the fall and submit reports by November. Permanent statutory committees will also hold meetings. The legislature will return to act on Governor Sununu’s vetoes, of which there were five at this writing with several more expected. The makeup of the legislature and more about what the future holds for the 2019 session will be revealed after the polls close on Tuesday, November 6th.