Hassan’s first 6 months marked by wins, losses – but mostly, civility at the State House
Gov. Maggie Hassan found herself stymied this year on many of her top policy priorities.
She fought hard for a casino bill that went down in the House. The Senate blocked Medicaid expansion, at least for now. No new funding emerged to address New Hampshire’s backlog of highway and bridge projects. The effort to repeal laws enacted by the Republican legislative supermajority in 2011 and 2012 – including voter ID and the “stand your ground” law – were unsuccessful.
But all in all, Hassan thinks her first six months in office went pretty well.
She delivered on her campaign promise to freeze in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. The new budget includes big increases in funding for higher education and mental health services that she had proposed, though she failed to convince lawmakers that expanded gambling and a hike in the cigarette tax were necessary to pay for them. A vote on Medicaid expansion is expected later this year, and legislators plan to address transportation funding in 2014.
And in general, lawmakers enjoyed a collegial and productive year despite split control of the Legislature, avoiding both partisan gridlock and the bitter fighting that marked state government in recent years.
“We set out, when we came into office, to really restore some critical priorities to the people of New Hampshire and to restore a tone and a sense, I guess, of common sense in the State House,” Hassan said last week. “And I think both have been achieved.”
A rising tide lifts all boats. Hassan may not have been the sole architect of bipartisan comity in Concord, but she’ll likely benefit from it.
“Usually it’s the case that the chief executive gets the credit – or the blame,” said University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith.
A more civil tone
On Jan. 3, the day she took office, Hassan promised to focus on “openness, bipartisanship and collective problem solving” as New Hampshire’s 81st governor.
After all, with Democrats in control of the House and Republicans holding a 13-11 majority in the Senate, any legislation would by necessity require bipartisan support to become law.
“The people of New Hampshire have made it clear that they want to restore balance, that they want us to work together,” Hassan said in her inaugural address. “Let us promise ourselves today that we will meet our challenges by focusing on common-sense solutions born of collaboration, that we will together end the era of hasty, reactive government.”
She got a standing ovation from the crowd in Representatives Hall. And six months later, lawmakers agree that they had a notably civil session.
“This is certainly the best that it’s been in quite a long time,” said Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat now serving her ninth term in the House.
There were disagreements and, on occasion, heated rhetoric over the budget, Medicaid expansion, barring guns from Representatives Hall and Democratic attempts to repeal laws enacted by last session’s Republican-dominated Legislature.
But gone were the large crowds protesting cuts to state spending. Heated confrontations on the House and Senate floors were few. And by the end of June, lawmakers had found considerable common ground.
The state budget passed with nearly unanimous support in both chambers. A bipartisan deal softened the voter ID law enacted last year. A medical marijuana bill passed with overwhelming support. The state’s research-and-development tax credit was doubled and made permanent.
In Washington, D.C., Republican control of the U.S. House and Democratic control of the White House and the U.S. Senate has led to gridlock and partisan bickering. But in Concord, a Democratic House and a Republican Senate passed 294 bills in six months.
The Senate, with 24 members, has traditionally been more collegial than the 400-member House. In the House, Democratic and Republican leaders – perhaps learning from the breakdown in civility over the last several sessions – seemed to make a conscious effort to communicate frequently and foster an atmosphere of respect.
And at a structural level, divided control may have discouraged extremism and emphasized consensus-building.
Rep. David Hess of Hooksett, the deputy GOP leader in the House, said he believes leaders from both parties learned from the fact that control of the House switched three times in the last four elections.
“You’re still going to have the people on the far right and the far left pursue their ideological agendas, but they tend to be marginalized if you have a pretty broad coalition that is in the center,” Hess said, adding, “I think there was a feeling that you didn’t have to be on a crusade.”
How much credit can Hassan take for the legislative session’s most important accomplishment, the new two-year state budget that she signed into law late last month?
In February, she proposed increased funding for the University System of New Hampshire, the Community College System of New Hampshire, public charter schools and mental health services, among other areas. The final budget largely followed her spending blueprint, and in response the public colleges and universities agreed to freeze in-state tuition rates next year.
“Those are all priorities that I set out in the budget, and then throughout the budget process built consensus around,” Hassan said. “I think some of the credit goes to me. A lot of the credit goes to the people of New Hampshire, who were very clear about what their priorities were, too.”
But the budget doesn’t include Medicaid expansion, a Democratic priority that instead is now being studied by a special commission. And on the revenue side, there are some significant changes from Hassan’s initial proposal.
She proposed a 30-cent tobacco tax hike, as well as two fee increases, that the Senate rejected. Her budget’s estimate for revenue from the Medicaid Enhancement Tax was revised way down. Most importantly, the final budget doesn’t include $80 million from a casino license that Hassan had argued was essential if the state was to balance its books and make much-needed investments in higher education and the state’s hospitals.
Hassan lobbied the House, and especially the Democratic caucus, to support the Senate’s casino bill. But, after months of debate, it went down by a 35-vote margin. And in the end, increasingly optimistic estimates for business tax revenue helped pay for much of the new spending Hassan had proposed.
The budget deal that came together in the early morning hours of June 20 was similar to the Republican budget that passed the Senate on a party-line vote a few weeks earlier. Hassan and the House Democrats did win some concessions, reducing the size of an across-the-board cut to personnel costs and moving up the timeline for a Medicaid expansion study commission, but Senate Republicans won more arguments than they lost.
“I don’t think there was any mystical harmonic at work here,” said Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican. “I think there was a realization, when all was said and done, that the budget the Senate passed was a good one, and the people who wanted something different probably weren’t going to get anything different.”
While Hassan did propose more funding for higher education and mental health services, “frankly, they were things that we all thought were priorities,” Bragdon said. And, he said, Hassan used “made-up revenues” in her plan.
“I don’t see a lot of credit to go along there,” Bragdon said.
Voters will get the final verdict. Hassan will be on the ballot next November, assuming she seeks a second term, and so will all 424 seats in the Legislature.
The latest UNH Granite State Poll, taken in the spring, showed 51 percent of New Hampshire residents approved of Hassan’s job performance versus 11 percent who disapproved. The poll of 507 adults, taken April 4-9, had a 4.4 percent margin of error.
Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said a new poll should be out soon. But, he said, the earlier survey showed the public was paying relatively little attention to the state government or the budget then being debated.
“The sense I get is that we’re going to get a collective yawn from the public,” he said.
For Hassan, and for lawmakers from both parties, that may be a good thing: No news is better than bad news.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)