'Fresh session, old bills'

Last modified: 9/30/2012 12:00:00 AM
It's looking like the next Legislature will fight many of the same fights this Legislature did.

Right to work is coming back. So are abortion restrictions, gay marriage and tweaks to the state's business taxes. Ditto for gambling, voter ID and concealed gun licenses.

But the outcome, not to mention the tone, of those discussions will be decided by the Nov. 6 election.

'We are approaching the next session by working hard for Nov. 6, and I think that's going to make all the difference for us,' said Jay Ward, political director for the State Employees' Association, which opposes right to work and a reduction in employee health benefits. 'We think that the system works best when it's as close to 50-50 (Republicans and Democrats) as possible because that's when (lawmakers) really have to build coalitions and compromise instead of jamming through somebody's wild idea.'

Republicans have held a 3-1 supermajority the past two years, and the right-wing element of the party, led by House Speaker Bill O'Brien, sidelined not only Democrats but moderate Republicans, too.

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, expects the Republicans to lose that huge advantage in November.

When the Republicans swept into office in 2010, there wasn't a presidential contest. This year there is, and that tends to bring out a more equal number of Republican and Democratic voters, Scala said.

'We don't know how 2012 will turn out yet, but all the signs show that Democrats will be very competitive up and down the ticket,' he said. Scala predicted the GOP would lose several dozen spots in the 400-seat House.

'As a result, the State House will be a lot closer to a 50-50 split than it will be 75-25, as it is now. And that will be a more accurate reflection of the state of the whole New Hampshire electorate,' he said.

Early bill requests

Among the earliest clues about the upcoming legislative agenda are the early bill requests filed by sitting House members. (Senators file their bill requests after the election.) That early filing period ended Wednesday, and as of late Friday, 259 of the requests had been made public.

Only the title of a lawmaker's proposed legislation is available, and while some titles are too vague to decipher, many are not.

One of O'Brien's requests would reintroduce right-to-work legislation that failed last year. O'Brien's proposal would prohibit unions from charging nonmember employees a lesser 'agency fee' to cover the cost of negotiating and enforcing contracts. Right now, the State Employees' Association charges non-members 58 percent of regular dues to cover contract costs, Ward said.

O'Brien has been a champion of right-to-work legislation, and campaign finance filings this fall indicated that hasn't changed. O'Brien's House Republican Victory political action committee has received $10,000 from a national right-to-work advocacy group based in Virginia, according to filings with the secretary of state.

Several other issues look like they'll be back as well.

Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican, and Rep. Daniel Itse, a Fremont Republican, want another crack at a constitutional amendment that takes control of education, including its funding, from the courts and gives it to the Legislature. That failed this year.

Rep. Lenette Peterson, a Merrimack Republican, has a bill request that would outlaw abortion if the fetus's heartbeat could be detected. Rep. Keith Murphy, a Bedford Republican, is seeking legislation to prohibit mothers from aborting a fetus because of its gender.

O'Brien and Rep. Jordan Ulery, a Hudson Republican, each filed a bill request to revive this year's failed constitutional amendment barring a new or increased tax unless it was supported by three-fifths of the Legislature.

Repealing gay marriage is not among the 259 bill requests made public last week, and its prime sponsor last year, Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican, is not seeking re-election. But Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican who opposes gay marriage, said in a recent interview that he would likely take up Bates's fight.

Lawmakers like Baldasaro who don't file legislation before the election can do so after. And a bill proposed now can survive even if its sponsor is defeated in November as long as an elected lawmaker backs it.

Rep. Michael Weeden, a Strafford Republican, wants to reduce the business profits tax. Rep. Donald McClarren, a Nashua Republican, hopes to do the same to the state's rooms and meals tax.

Rep. Jennifer Coffey, an Andover Republican, wants to increase the number of mental health care beds in the state. Local hospitals have expressed concern about an increase of patients in a mental health crisis arriving at their emergency rooms and having nowhere to send them because the state hospital is full.

Voter ID, passed this year, will return thanks Rep. Timothy Horrigan of Durham and Rep. Cynthia Chase of Keene. Both Democrats want to repeal the law.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, has filed a bill request repealing the death penalty. His timing makes sense. Gov. John Lynch rejected all efforts to repeal the death penalty during his eight years in office. But both people hoping to take Lynch's job, Democrat Maggie Hassan of Exeter and Republican Ovide Lamontagne, have said they oppose capital punishment.

Rep. Peter Sullivan, a Manchester Democrat, wants to revisit the education tax credit passed this year that allows businesses to get a tax credit if they donate to scholarships that can be used for private or religious education.

Sullivan would keep the tax credit, he said, but use the scholarship money for community college tuition, not private schooling.

The proposed Northern Pass energy project, which would bring hydropower from Canada through New Hampshire and into the New England grid, inspired several bills last year. The big one, preventing a private project like Northern Pass from taking land through eminent domain, passed.

Rep. Laurence Rappaport, a Colebrook Republican whose community strongly opposes Northern Pass, has a proposed bill requiring that all transmission lines be buried. Although several people, including Hassan and Lamontagne, have also called for buried lines, Northern Pass officials have said doing so is unfeasible and too costly.

Gambling is expected to be a hot topic again this year, but it might get more momentum because unlike Lynch, Lamontagne and Hassan have said they support a single casino in New Hampshire.

Among the bill requests made public so far, one addresses revenue collected from casinos and another seeks to repeal a prohibition on gambling.

Lobbyists

Legislation is filed by lawmakers, but it's often inspired or shaped by special interest groups and their lobbyists. And those groups had their eyes on the upcoming session before this one ended.

Adrienne Rupp, spokeswoman for the Business and Industry Association, said that group will come out with its priority list soon. But she's not expecting it to change much from this year's.

'We want to focus on legislation that will improve the business climate,' she said.

To that end, the group would like to see business taxes lowered but recognizes that might not be possible given the state's depressed revenue, Rupp said. And it hopes lawmakers will take another try at increasing the business research and development tax credit. That legislation was on its way to passing this year until an unrelated abortion bill was tied to it.

'We would continue to oppose any maneuvers of that part,' she said.

Additionally, the business group will be advocating for greater investments in roads and other infrastructure because those kinds of investments keep businesses in the state and attract new ones, Rupp said.

Health care is also a priority of the Business and Industry Association. According to its 2012 priority list, it opposes new health care mandates, supports 'adequate' payments for Medicaid providers and would like to see cost-effective ways to treat the uninsured and underinsured so businesses and communities are not carrying that burden.

Among the health-related bill requests filed is one from O'Brien that opposes an expansion of Medicaid care under the Affordable Care Act.

The New Hampshire Hospital Association also has its eye on Medicaid and health care coverage, said President Steve Ahnen. That will be especially true during the first year, when lawmakers write a two-year budget.

This Legislature cut payments to the state's hospitals significantly to balance the budget. And the hospitals are suing the state in federal court over 2008 cuts in Medicaid payments that hospitals said left them with millions of dollars of uncompensated care.

But a top priority this session will be preventing a repeat of the hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital. A radiology technician has been charged with infecting more than 30 patients by misusing hospital syringes.

Rep. Lee Quandt, an Exeter Republican, has proposed legislation calling for more testing and oversight of certain hospital workers, according to the legislative requests on the Legislature's website.

Ahnen said the hospital association is gathering a group of doctors and other health experts to discuss the best legislative approach to 'prevent this kind of situation from occurring again.' He added: 'What can we do at the state level? The hospital level? The national level? The goal is what's in the best interest of our patients.'

O'Brien did not return a message inquiring about his priorities for the next session. He is running again for House speaker, along with a handful of others.

But his past priorities line up with those of the House Republican Alliance, and Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a Salem Republican and officer in the alliance, shared its priority list for the upcoming session.

There are already bill requests for some issues on the list, including education funding, right to work, Medicaid expansion and a constitutional amendment setting a high threshold for adopting new taxes or increasing existing ones.

Other priorities for the alliance include overhauling the state Liquor Commission, pension reform, education choice, repealing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and price transparency for health care costs, Garcia wrote in an email.

The alliance also wants to 'reform' the state's Electronic Benefits Transfer that provides financial assistance to the needy. O'Brien went public this summer with complaints about the program after a store clerk was fired for refusing to sell cigarettes to someone paying for them with an EBT card.

O'Brien has filed a legislative request 'relative to reforming EBT cards' but no specific information was available on the legislative website. Rep. Donald LeBrun, a Nashua Republican, has filed a bill request requiring EBT users have a photo ID. In addition, LeBrun would like recipients of food stamps to undergo random drug testing.

Guns consumed a fair amount of lawmakers' time this year. Most bills, including one to allow loaded shotguns and crossbows to be transported in a vehicle, failed. So did another one that would have eliminated the license currently required to carry a concealed firearm.

Sam Cohen, chief operating office and executive vice president of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, wants to bring that last one back for consideration. It wasn't among the 259 legislative requests made public so far, but Cohen said the group will have one of its legislative members introduce it.

Cohen said the argument hasn't changed. Vermont hasn't required a license to carry a concealed gun for more than 100 years. 'There's no shoot-outs on the streets or bar fights with guns,' he said. 'There's none of that, and that's true when gun laws are relaxed.'

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England successfully fought several bills this year that would have restricted abortion rights. One would have required a woman to wait 24 hours before having an abortion. Another would have made abortions illegal after 20 weeks.

Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser for the organization, said her group's focus hasn't changed, and it goes beyond abortion rights.

'Ensuring that New Hampshire women have access to the essential primary and preventive services that promote and protect their health, including family planning services, will be our top priority,' she wrote in an email. 'This will include advancing implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which holds enormous promise to improve women's health.'

Still, Frizzell said, Planned Parenthood 'stands ready to defend against measures that would inject politicians into personal decision-making about pregnancy and to ensure that abortion remains a safe and legal medical procedure for New Hampshire women.'

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@annmarietimmins.)




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