Capital Beat: It’s the most unpredictable time of the (legislative) year
For four days this week, House and Senate members will convene in small groups to work out the chambers’ differences on issues as big as the Medicaid Enhancement Tax and as seemingly small as whether to create a robotics education fund.
Lawmakers will spend their days shuffling between meetings. Sometimes they’ll sit down for 30 seconds, then decide to break and not reconvene until the next day. Other times, negotiations that seem doomed will suddenly come to quick resolution.
Welcome to committee of conference week, one of the least predictable periods of the legislative session.
“It’s a very fluid process for a while there,” said Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat. “I can’t plan my day at all when (we’re in) conference committees, and no one can.”
Committees are formed when the Senate and House both want to pass a bill but can’t agree on the specifics. Conference committees have four House members and three senators. Some of them started meeting Friday, and all committees have until this Friday to create a final bill. All seven members must sign off or the bill dies. Once the committee agrees, the full House and Senate will meet one last time June 4 and 5 to vote on the final bills.
The Medicaid Enhancement Tax is the issue expected to take the most wrangling. The state is facing a possible loss of tens of millions of dollars from a controversial tax on hospitals that two lower courts recently declared unconstitutional. Since those rulings came down, lawmakers, the governor and hospitals have been trying to come to an amiable solution.
Senators control the conference, and Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, has made clear he doesn’t support any solution that expands the tax to more groups. Sen. Bob Odell, a New London Republican, will chair the committee. The other members include Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican; Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat; Democratic Reps. Mary Jane Wallner of Concord, Susan Almy of Lebanon and Cindy Rosenwald of Nashua; and Republican Rep. David Hess of Hooksett.
Both chambers are going into the conference with different approaches: The Senate’s plan phases the tax out over time, while two House approaches keep the tax and possibly extend it to more providers. The final solution could look different than any of the proposals so far.
If lawmakers don’t solve this issue in four short days, which really isn’t a whole lot of time, they’ll have to come back for a special session this summer. Hospitals have already told the Department of Revenue Administration that, as of now, they don’t plan to pay the tax when it comes due in October.
Although Morse isn’t on the committee, he’s made it clear that the Senate needs to advocate for phasing out the tax. His plan lowers the rate of the tax and gives more money back to hospitals. On several major issues this session, including the budget and Medicaid expansion, the Senate has held the cards when it comes to reaching a deal. Going into this conference, it looks as though the Senate may have the upper hand again. Gov. Maggie Hassan has not publicly endorsed a specific solution.
The MET conference holds the most weight, but it’s not the only conference that could be interesting this year. Consider these bills:
∎ Some House members are not happy with the Senate’s decision to tack a bill about liquor samples onto a bill aimed at creating a robotics education fund, which longtime Republican Rep. Norman Major worked tirelessly on. Major’s bill would create a fund in the Department of Education that accepts voluntary donations to go toward robotics education programs in schools statewide. Senators amended Major’s bill to add language that would allow licensed rectifiers to give alcohol samples. If House and Senate members can’t agree, the bill Major worked so hard on could be a casualty.
∎ Senators also combined a bill about reimbursements to communities in the Merrimack River Flood Compact with a bill to regulate pre-buy contracts for home heating oil customers, written in response to a shortage from Fred Fuller Oil Co. this winter. The two chambers agree on the home heating oil portion, but not the flood portion. Massachusetts recently agreed to return $1.1 million it owed to New Hampshire communities under the decades-old flood compact agreement. Senators want to give that money back to the communities, while House members want to keep it in the state’s coffers.
∎ Republicans and Democrats have been fighting over what to do with the last biennium’s $15 million surplus all year, with Republicans hoping to send it all to the rainy day fund and Democrats wanting to put $7 million toward the Department of Health and Human Services. The Republican-led Senate is taking one more chance at getting its way by adding it to a bill that codifies salaries for certain state positions.
That’s not how it works
Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein kicked off his first campaign initiative this week, a “Factory Floors and Entrepreneurs” tour of businesses. A former chief executive officer of defense manufacturing company BAE Systems, Havenstein will play up his business background through the campaign as evidence that he’s better equipped to improve New Hampshire’s economy than Hassan.
But during a week that should generate mostly positive press coverage, Havenstein found himself in a bit of hot water for comments he made at a GOP event in Atkinson. The Nashua Telegraph reported that at that meeting, Havenstein criticized Department of Resources and Economic Development Commissioner Jeff Rose by saying Rose doesn’t know how to encourage businesses to come to New Hampshire. Rose, it turns out, is a former BAE Systems employee and has worked for several prominent state Republicans.
The comments were unfortunate, to be sure, but it wasn’t the only head-scratching thing Havenstein said. According to the Telegraph, when asked by an audience member, Havenstein also said he’d veto a proposed constitutional amendment banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. An amendment to do just that was working its way through the Legislature this fall but failed to get through the House, in part because the proposed amendment didn’t expressly spell out protections for transgender people.
The problem with Havenstein’s statement? A constitutional amendment never comes to the governor’s desk. After getting legislative support, it would go to voters.
Of course, the legislative process can be complicated. Even legislators who sit through sessions on a weekly basis sometimes bungle the process. But Democrats have used these comments to further their narrative that Havenstein doesn’t understand New Hampshire. He has lived here since 1999, but lived temporarily in Maryland several years ago, a point that Democrats will continue to hammer until election day.
Henry Goodwin, Havenstein’s press secretary, said Havenstein opposes any kind of discrimination and pointed to House members’ concerns of unintended consequences of the amendment.
“His remark about vetoing, while misapplied to the discussion of a constitutional amendment rather than a bill, was made in the context that a governor should take an assertive position when dealing with such fundamental changes to our most important laws. And, that when amending our Constitution, we must be as certain as possible that the proposed change will achieve its intended purpose,” Goodwin said in an email to the Monitor.
Fight against Free Staters
A curious new account popped up in the world of New Hampshire political Twitter this week: @OurStateProject. The account’s description reads, “Exposing the Freestater threat to New Hampshire politics,” and the URL ourstateproject.com links back to the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
The problem is, no one knows where the account came from, and the Democratic Party says it’s not associated with it. There is a group of Democratic elected officials and politically involved people that has been meeting and calling itself the Our State Project, but they insist they’re not behind the account.
Zandra Rice-Hawkins, executive director of the left-leaning Granite State Progress, confirmed that a “loose-knit” group of people has been meeting at Granite State Progress offices on a monthly basis to discuss strategies for informing communities about Free Staters running for elected office. The Free State Project tends to be secretive about its membership, and Granite State Progress has done a lot of work to help “expose” Free Staters.
“We help them identify the Free State Project members trying to run for office locally so they can do more community education,” Rice-Hawkins said.
Rice-Hawkins said the Twitter account is not associated with the group.
Shaheen to NFL: Change Redskins’ name
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, joined 49 other senators in calling on the Washington Redskins to change their name this week.
The senators wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to endorse a name change for the team. The letter highlighted the National Basketball Association’s recent condemnation of Donald Sterling, a team owner who made racist remarks, as an example that it’s time for the NFL to act against racism as well.
“We believe this conversation is an opportunity for the NFL to take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises,” the letter said.
The issue of whether it’s appropriate to use a slang term and likeness of Native Americans isn’t just being debated in Washington. Right here in New Hampshire, a number of school districts have grappled with whether to change their name over the years. Merrimack Valley High School switched from the Indians to the Pride a decade ago. And this month, Belmont High School students proposed keeping the name “Red Raiders” but changing the mascot and logo to be something other than a depiction of a Native American.
Interestingly, Shaheen does not wish to weigh in on those cases.
“Senator Shaheen believes schools and local communities should decide whether or not they change their mascots,” her spokesman, Shripal Shah, said in a statement.
Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was not on the list of senators requesting the name change. Several news outlets reported that Democrats did not circulate the letter to Republicans before sending it.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)