Analysis: Wins and losses for Hassan in her second year as governor
Governor Maggie Hassan
(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
FILE - In this April 16, 2013 file photo, Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., leaves a joint House panel public hearing at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H., after urging them to pass a bill to license a single casino in New Hampshire. Although the senate passed the bill, the House killed it, making it one of New Hampshire's top stories of the year. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
Ask Gov. Maggie Hassan what her priorities are and you’ll get a laser-focused answer: moving the economy in the “right direction,” “expanding opportunity” for the middle class and helping “innovative businesses” create jobs.
In an interview with the Monitor to discuss the year’s successes and setbacks, Hassan continuously pivoted back to all three, whether she was talking about Medicaid expansion, fixing the Medicaid Enhancement Tax problem or the failure to raise the minimum wage. With an election coming up, it’s clear that Hassan has her message locked down.
But Hassan laid out more expansion priorities than those three quick sound bites in her State of the State address in February, in which she looked back on her successes in year one and outlined the road map for year
two. Nearly seven months and 742 bills later, Hassan’s second year in office was largely marked by making headway on major initiatives that she wasn’t able to accomplish last year, such as Medicaid expansion, and by her response to a lawsuit from state hospitals over a multimillion-dollar tax.
“Despite the fact that you have a divided government, you haven’t had a stalemate in Concord. On the whole, I think that’s a plus for her,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
New Hampshire lawmakers left November’s special session on Medicaid expansion without a deal and with a lot of frustration. But sometime between then and February, six senators reached a deal just in time for Hassan’s State of the State address. It was a deal that looked similar to one proposed in November, but the bipartisan group of senators that created it presented it in a way that let both sides take some credit.
It’s unclear what role Hassan played in crafting the final deal, as she was far less vocal about a solution than she had been in November, when she held rallies in the communities of Republican senators considered to be swing votes. When asked earlier this month, she didn’t take full credit for the plan but instead praised the bipartisan cooperation that led to it.
“What I am most pleased about is that we’ve been able, over the past year, to come together to solve problems the New Hampshire way, and I think that Medicaid expansion is a great example of that,” Hassan said. “It took a lot of conversation, a lot of educating each other about what was important to our constituents and to our providers. I’m just delighted we were able to get it done.”
Hassan offered a similar, tempered analysis of the agreement over the Medicaid Enhancement Tax settlement, which kept the state from facing a multimillion budget hole. Much of the deal-making happened behind the scenes, and 25 of the state’s 26 hospitals decided not to pursue the lawsuit in exchange for more money back to cover uncompensated and charity care. The state will have between $45 million and $95 million less in the next biennium, which is substantially less than the loss without a solution. Through the months of uncertainty, Hassan never offered a solution publicly. But it was Hassan who confidently announced a settlement deal to lawmakers, looking as if she drove the process.
“What I kept doing with leaders in the executive branch was really trying to keep people talking, trying to provide a variety of options and ways we might go at this issue,” Hassan said. “But it was important that we worked with our legislative colleagues, too, and at the end of the day, I’m very pleased that we were able to get it done.”
Ask Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, and it was really the Senate that drove the conversation on both of these issues. Through the year, Morse was often more vocal than Hassan when it came to stating opinions and taking credit.
“I think (Hassan) has been there when I needed to talk to her, but I also think there are issues that the Senate led on,” Morse said. “It’s obvious on health care we couldn’t get to an agreement with the governor in November, the Senate came together and led.”
Another controversial issue that started in the Senate and achieved bipartisan support was an increase in the gas tax to fund road and bridge projects. The 4.2 cents is far less than the original 12 cents Hassan and some others wanted last year. But Hassan spoke about the need for funding infrastructure in her State of the State address and praised Sen. Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican, for his work on finding the money. Right-wing groups will try to tie the tax to Hassan through Election Day, but she hasn’t backed away from the measure.
“The rap against (former) governor Lynch was, here’s someone who is unwilling to sign off on controversial legislation or unwilling to support partisan goals, unwilling to spend political capital,” Scala said. With Hassan “you have a governor who isn’t as popular but, arguably, has signed off on controversial legislation.”
Failing to legalize casino gambling and to raise the minimum wage are two of Hassan’s biggest losses for the session and the year, when compared with the priorities she laid out.
The latter was a much more partisan fight, and the Republican-controlled Senate ultimately defeated the bill, saying it would be bad for business and could lead to job losses. In New Hampshire and on the national level, some Democrats are hoping it could turn into a campaign issue.
“Expanding opportunity for middle-class families includes restoring and improving the minimum wage, not only for the financial security for families but also so that our businesses have more customers,” she said. “I’ll continue to push for restoring and improving the minimum wage as I campaign for re-election.”
Hassan’s support for casino gambling was so noteworthy because it was a break from Lynch, who always opposed expanded gambling, and because she included $80 million from nonexistent casino revenue in her first budget proposal last year. Casino gambling is a far less partisan issue, as both Republicans and Democrats have championed it and fought against it.
Hassan has always stated her support for one casino, and never gave a clear comment on how she would handle a bill legalizing two casinos. It was that bill, started in the Senate, that was killed by just one vote this year. If re-elected, she will continue to fight for one casino and stressed to the Monitor that she believes New Hampshire needs a new source of revenue that is not an income or sales tax.
“I think as people get more educated about it, they get more comfortable about it, and I think they do understand increasingly that revenue will leave this state,” Hassan said.
Gambling may be Hassan’s most high-profile loss, but is it something that could lose her the governor’s office? It’s unlikely, Scala said. Both of her Republican opponents, Walt Havenstein and Andrew Hemingway, have criticized her for including nonexistent money in her budget, but neither have hammered Hassan repeatedly on the issue.
“I just don’t see it becoming an issue that voters are going to hold against her,” Scala said. “. . . I think it’s rare that you would find New Hampshire governors who were sent home by voters because they failed (to pass) a piece of legislation that they supported.”
Hassan will promote and defend all of the above initiatives and more as she hits the campaign trail and prepares for the November election, trying to tie each one to the three goals she talks about so steadily. On each piece, she’ll likely emphasize bipartisanship as well, casting herself as the governor who presided over two years at the State House marked by a calmer style of debate than the session before.
And regardless of how much Hassan drove each narrative, what voters will ultimately remember when they go to the polls is the end result – and whether or not they agree with it.
“The fact is the legislation got done, and that’s what she’ll campaign on, and that’s what people will remember,” Scala said.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)