×

Capital Beat: A look ahead at the bills to watch in 2018



Monitor staff
Sunday, December 31, 2017

No one ever accused the Legislature of being shorthanded with its bill submissions, and this new year, as hundreds and hundreds await final decisions on the House and Senate floors, representatives are sticking to the script.

Halfway through the legislative biennium, with a Republican budget passed and a hefty slate of retained bills from the previous session still to conclude, both chambers will reconvene this week with their work cut out for them.

Most of those bills arrive with committee recommendations of “inexpedient-to-legislate”; others, of lesser consequence, have been roundly green-lit and vaulted onto the consent calendar. But a few bills are made of more ambitious stuff, and if successful, could bring about major changes to the Granite State.

Here are five worth keeping your eye on:

Medicaid expansion bill

What it does: As yet unknown: The first draft hasn’t been released, but the latest indications from Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley – a prime sponsor – are that his bill will reauthorize the state’s Medicaid expansion program, with significant changes. Chief among them: moving the 50,000-strong Medicaid expansion population away from the individual market and onto New Hampshire’s existing managed care program. Exactly how the state plans to make up its 10 percent share, however, has yet to be negotiated.

How it’s progressed: As health care policy tossed and turned in Washington, a 13-member commission in New Hampshire met regularly throughout the year to assess New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion model, or “Premium Assistance Program.” The final recommendation – a managed care model similar to most other states – has now been taken up by Bradley, who chaired the commission.

Prognosis on the floor: Calling Medicaid expansion fraught territory is a heavy understatement; past efforts to start and reauthorize it have set off bitter divides that nearly derailed it. Conservative Republicans are leery of supporting a program they say could saddle the state with burdensome future costs, while moderates and Democrats tout its success in delivering health care for low-income residents and funds to fight the opioid crisis. This year’s model might make the difference, if only because the managed care model is projected to save the state money by cutting insurance costs for some plans in half. But plenty of budget hawks are looking for a chance to finally cut the program off.

SB 193: The school choice bill

What it does: This bill would allow eligible parents to pay for private school tuition with state public school funds – parents could access the per-student adequacy funds that normally go to public schools through a savings account. That per-student amount adds up to over $3,000, which Republican backers say will allow low-income people access to schools that best suit their children’s needs. Right now, the bill restricts eligibility to low-income students, students on special education plans, students who can’t get a spot at a charter school for lack of space, or students who get turned down for a scholarship with the state’s tax-credit program for lack of funds. If successful, the bill would be one of the furthest reaching voucher-style state education programs in the country.

How it’s progressed:Momentum for SB 193 has been largely Republican-driven, though a few members of both parties switched sides in the latest House Committee vote. Some last-minute changes were made to win over skeptics in the House, including provisions tightening eligibility and setting a financial safeguard for public schools if they lose a certain threshold of funding. But the bill has hewed fairly close to the Senate version that passed last session.

Prognosis on the floor: Democrats and public school advocates strongly oppose the bill, which they say will hurt public school budgets and deprive other children attending public schools from adequate resources. But as heated as the debate is likely to be, signs are mounting that it may eke through the House on Wednesday, and Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated that he will support and sign the final version. A question-and-answer period on the bill for House representatives has been set for Tuesday.

HB 372: The voting bill

What it does: That’s tricky. On its face, the bill changes the definition of “residency” to mean the same as “domicile” for those living here. That’s about as far as the common understanding goes. Talk to Democrats and they’ll say the provision effectively requires residency to vote, a change they say will force college students to register their cars should they decide to pull the lever on election day – a de facto “poll tax.” Check back with some Senate Republican sponsors of the bill, and they’ll readily agree that it creates a residency requirement, but embrace it as a reasonable requirement for voting. But ask the original sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, and he’ll say that interpretation is a broad overreach: While he would like a residency requirement, this bill is a mere housekeeping measure, he says.

It’s a linguistic quagmire wherever you stand, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the interpretive clause in the latest version directly states that the bill requires residency to vote – a statement that may or may not be backed up in the actual bill. But whatever its true functions, the bill promises to be the next battlefront for voting law reform in New Hampshire.

How it’s progressed: Overshadowed by the Senate Bill 3 voting bill last session, HB 372 moved along somewhat quietly, slipping through the House until it faced a vote in the Senate Election Law committee in late November. It was only when that committee added language related to a residency requirement that the bill grabbed the most attention.

Prognosis on the floor: A hard call, but it looks to be facing a tough journey. With interpretations so widely divergent, the bill will likely need some clarity before its sponsors can rally support. It’s unclear what the appetite for another voting bill will be on the heels of SB3, which drew controversy and is presently tied up in a court challenge. And Sununu appears opposed: He told a young activist earlier this month that he would veto any bill that threatens the student vote and he has reiterated to reporters deep concerns with the way the bill has been interpreted.

SB 247: The lead poisoning bill

What it does: This bill would require that health care providers offer universal lead blood testing to all 1- and 2-year-olds, unless parents choose to opt out. It would add regulations to landlords, lowering the threshold of lead that must be found in a child of a tenant in order for the landlord to be required to renovate the property. And it would create a $6 million guaranteed loan program to help assist landlords seeking to carry out those renovations. The overall aim: To reduce child lead paint hazards in New Hampshire’s housing stock, much of which was built before 1978, when lead paint was made illegal.

How it’s progressed: The bill has had a long road, undergoing numerous revisions throughout the year as landlord associations and children’s advocates have pulled it in separate directions. The latest version, which passed the 26-member House Finance Committee nearly unanimously in November, has been hailed as a prudent compromise by supporters; landlords call it a costly burden that will drive up rents and threaten affordable housing.

Prognosis on the floor: For this bill, the future is bright. With strong supporters in the House and Senate, including leadership, passage seems likely. On Tuesday, Sununu is expected to join a press conference with the New Hampshire Legal Association to lend his support. But that’s not to say all representatives are behind the bill. Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus, called it a hardship for both parents and landlords this week, and said others may oppose it when it hits the House floor.

HB 628: The family leave bill

What it does: This bill creates a state-administered family leave insurance program that would provide all nongovernmental employees with 12 weeks of paid leave, and require their employers to provide those plans. Those eligible include workers who have recently become parents or who have relatives suffering serious health conditions; to qualify, workers would need to pay in quarterly premiums and be employed at least six months.

How it’s progressed: So far the bill is in its early stages, having so far only been recommended by the House Labor committee, 13-5, in November. But that in itself is a milestone: a family leave bill has never advanced out of a committee before, according to its prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord.

Prognosis on the floor: Chances look decent, if not overwhelming. November’s vote was bipartisan, but the bill has a long ways to go, including the House Finance and Rules committees. Some Republicans say the bill is too stingily funded and will pass costs on to employers and drive away business. Meanwhile, Sununu, who campaigned on family leave, said this month he still supports the bill, but won’t actively campaign for it, preferring to review the final version if it reaches his desk. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, has said that won’t be good enough, and is urging the governor to take a more active role.

It’s difficult to capture the sheer spectrum of legislation this session, and the five bills above hardly do it alone. A second attempt to prohibit transgender discrimination; a renewed push for death penalty repeal; a new fight for a foster parent “bill of rights”– the range of upcoming consequential bills not detailed in this space is near-endless.

But if the headline acts prove anything, the second half of the 2017-18 session has plenty of fuse yet to burn.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)