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Capital Beat: Advocates look to second chance for gender identity bill


Monday, January 22, 2018

The language is the same – not a word out of place. Nine months after a gender identity nondiscrimination bill was tabled in the House, the effort has returned; House Bill 1319, up for a hearing later this month, is a carbon copy of its predecessor.

But this time, advocates say, the wind is at their back.

“I think the outreach has been quite successful,” said Rep. Ed Butler, D-Harts Location, the prime sponsor. “I think that our communities understand the needs of the transgender community in ways today that they didn’t a year ago.”

Recent history bears repeating. Introduced last year, House Bill 478 would have added “gender identity” to various categories of prohibited discrimination – including age, sex and race. No longer would gender identity discrimination be allowed in housing, employment or public accommodations.

The push mirrored similar efforts in other states. But a backlash soon followed. Republican leadership zeroed in on the public accommodation clauses, arguing that allowing transgender individuals into bathrooms opens the door to sexual harassment and breaches of privacy.

The debate turned ugly. A flurry of phone calls and mailers flooded legislators, decrying the “bathroom bill” and urging a no vote. Looking for an easy out, Speaker Shawn Jasper and Majority Leader Dick Hinch chose to table the bill rather than fully kill it; the final vote was 187-179.

Now, making that decision has given the bill a second chance. By laying the bill on the table, Jasper allowed it to be revived – in a new bill – in the second year of the same session.

The new bill, HB 1319, contains the same provisions. But advocates have shifted tactics. To start, the bill has the support of nine Republican House sponsors, rather than the two that lent their names last year. It’s benefited from a year-long outreach campaign from an organization, Freedom New Hampshire, as well as backing from the state’s Business Industry Association.

And supporters are tackling what has proven the most sensitive – and controversial – element of the debate head on. A new “mythbusters” pamphlet Freedom New Hampshire distributes addresses concerns about harassment and assault: for one, the state’s criminal laws already prevent that behavior, the organization says.

“I think the reason most people are opposed is because they’re buying into this totally irrational fear about bathrooms that our opposition is spreading,” said Linds Jakows, campaign manager for Freedom New Hampshire. Last year, the organization was blindsided by the backlash; this year, Jakows says, they’ll be more prepared.

Whether the efforts will push the bill over what has historically been a steep ledge remains to be seen. But there is evidence that conversion is possible: two of the House Republican sponsors – Rep. Yvonne Dean-Bailey, R-Northwood, and Philip Bean, R-Hampton.

Dean-Bailey and Bean were not immediately available to comment on their changed positions. But Rep. Rennie Cushing, D-Hampton, a supporter of the bill, has theories on the shift.

“I think it’s education,” he said. “There was a fair amount of misinformation that was put forward. As people meet with transgender people, they come to understand the experience that the law doesn’t protect them.”

Business taxes booming

For the governor and legislative leadership, the news was vindication. A new analysis from the state’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS) projects that the state’s two business taxes are set to bring in a haul this fiscal year.

Between the business enterprise tax and the business profits tax, the state is set to receive $29.8 million more than had been budgeted for, according to the DAS analysis. The expected surplus, calculated as we hit the halfway mark for state fiscal year 2018, would come three years after a budget initiated cuts to the business taxes in 2016, with more now to follow in 2018.

Gov. Chris Sununu hailed the projections as a sign the tax cuts are working as intended – expanding business opportunities while still meeting (and exceeding) state revenue targets. “Today’s report is good news for New Hampshire and affirms my administration’s commitment to responsible, fiscally conservative budgeting,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

But there are some caveats. While DAS predicts business taxes will bring in major gains, other revenue sources are less impressive – amid a tightening housing market, the real estate transfer tax for instance will bring in $10.8 million less than expected; while other revenue sources are either falling behind targets or just meeting them, the department projects. Altogether, revenue is expected to exceed what was budgeted by $1.7 million – a welcome accomplishment, but a far cry from nearly $30 million.

Phil Sletten, policy analyst at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, says legislators should take pause. For one, he says, it’s unclear how long the surge in business tax revenue will last; a new round of cuts kicking in this year, and more in coming years, may eventually catch up to the present surpluses.

And then there are the unknowns heading into 2018: what the future holds for the revenue sources that are currently lagging, for instance, or whether enough towns will authorize Keno to cover the state’s minimum obligations under the full-day kindergarten law.

“We believe there’s reason to be cautious based on where we are now,” Sletten summarized.

With much in the air, and several large legislative priorities waiting in the wings – educational savings accounts come to mind – New Hampshire’s fiscal hawks may soon have their work cut out for them.

‘Double-dippers’

A bill to crack down on “double-dippers” and help shore up the state retirement system has cleared a first test in the Senate – with a few modifications. HB 561, which would reduce the number of hours retirees can go back to work in the public sector, passed the Senate 17-7 Thursday, on its way now to the finance committee.

The bill attempts to tackle years of concerns around the practice, in which public officials such as police chiefs retire, collect benefits, then return to their posts earning pay for up to 32 hours a week – without the town required to pay a portion of those wages into the retirement system. That system is more than $5 billion in debt at the moment.

House Bill 561, which caps those retirement hours to 1,300 a year – roughly 25 a week – came out of the efforts of the Decennial Retirement Commission and boasts the support of officials within the retirement system. But towns, counties and police departments have been loudly opposed, saying the bill would hurt their ability to retain experienced operators.

Now, the latest version carries a compromise: Retirees that work under 25 hours a week may stay as is; those who work between 25 and 32 pay a surcharge.

It was enough to satisfy the Senate. But with gateways to come – in Senate finance, and the full House – the pressure from towns is unlikely to recede quietly.

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