Capital Beat: What a Democratic state Senate could mean for New Hampshire

  • State Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat, speaks with the Monitor's editorial board Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. NICK REID

Monitor staff
Published: 11/10/2018 8:17:47 PM

A week after the September primary, a pack of weary journalists shuffled into the Legislative Office Building in Concord to hear a list of promises. Democratic state senators were pitching a new vision.

It was called the Granite State Opportunity Plan, and it was an even mix of policy proposals and platitudes – from paid family leave to green energy – under the mantra of lifting all Granite Staters should Democrats retake power. But the legislative session was months away, and the odds of a red-to-blue flip of the Senate seemed long. Most reporters shoved the press release into their briefcases and moved on.

Now, it’s more than a theoretical blueprint. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats surged into the majority, overtaking vulnerable incumbents in the south-central districts of the state and flipping a 14-10 Republican advantage to a 14-10 Democratic lead. For the first time since 2010, Democrats control the Senate, and for the first time ever, a Republican governor faces an all-Democratic Legislature.

So it’s time to revisit the plan. Here’s a glimpse of what a Democratic Senate will fight for, based on conversations with a half-dozen Senate Democrats and the Opportunity Plan itself.

Freezing thebusiness tax rate?

Central to the Democrats’ platform this cycle was that promise: securing “an economy that works for everyone, not just a select few.” For gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly, that meant, in part, reversing cuts to the business profits tax, presently at 7.9 percent, and bringing the rate back to 2016 levels. That tax break was regularly derided for benefiting wealthy corporations – the 3 percent of businesses that the Department of Revenue Administrations says pay 70 percent of the business taxes. Democrats have characterized it as an undue handout, even as Republicans argue that it has boosted business confidence and investment.

But while Kelly was clear on her intention to reverse the cuts, Senate Democrats have so far not coalesced behind a single approach. They could return the present rates to recent levels – back to above 8 percent – effectively raising the tax. They could freeze the present rates but stop future decreases; the tax is scheduled to dip to 7.5 percent by 2022. Or they could do nothing, and let the rates fall.

Manchester Sen. Lou D’Allesandro and Concord Sen. Dan Feltes say they favor the middle approach: keep the rate steady but stop future cuts. But the Democrats have not checked in as a caucus. And whatever they suggest, it will likely face opposition in the governor’s office.

Expect an agonizing battle during budget negotiations next year.

A workforce training bill

Even as Gov. Chris Sununu has pointed to strong metrics of economic success in the Granite State, he’s also had to face a darker side to New Hampshire’s low unemployment rate – the workforce shortage. Now, some Senate Democrats are looking to workforce training, pointing as one example to a bill that largely flew under the radar this year.

That bill, Senate Bill 567, would have tripled an existing fund for workforce training – from a $2 million max to a $6 million max – by reallocating portions of the unemployment compensation fund. It was pushed to interim study on the Senate floor in March with little discussion and with Sen. Sharon Carson the only Republican voting in favor.

However that bill fares on the governor’s desk, workforce development is perhaps the most promising area for cooperation between the parties. Just before the elections, Sununu announced his own prioritization of workforce training, previewing a $24 million proposal in his budget request to build up nursing higher education programs in the university system.

Passing paid family and medical leave insurance

It was trumpeted up and down the campaign trail, first by Kelly and then, eventually, by Sununu. For state Democrats, securing paid family and medical leave has been a winning talking point. But while Sununu says he’s tinkering with his own plan to rival the Democrats’ preferred approach, the two ideas are far apart.

One, House Bill 628, would create a state-run program that every private sector employee would be automatically signed up for unless they opt out. The other, Sununu’s announced plan, would attempt to create a private insurance market.

Feltes, a key architect of HB 628, said that the Democratic plan would take a “similar structure” as that bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate after opposition from Sununu. He appeared to rule out the idea of making contributions mandatory.

Both plans are unique. Nationally, neither the governor’s nor the Democrats’ approach has been attempted before at the state level, as this column has noted before; all other states have mandatory programs. But if both camps stick to their present philosophies, there may be little common ground to get a program approved.

On that front, Feltes fired a warning shot. “I’m hopeful Gov. Sununu will take more of a Charlie Baker approach to public policy making than the approach he took on paid family and medical leave insurance last year,” he said, referencing the moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts.

DCYF, mental health,substance abuse treatment

Democrats have often charged that New Hampshire underfunds its services for vulnerable populations like at-risk children and substance use disorder victims. Now, they’re hoping to dedicate the money in the next budget to bridge the gap – whether by increasing workers at the Division for Children, Youth and Families to lower caseloads, increasing commitments to community mental health centers, or raising Medicaid rates to providers by increasing the state match.

It’s a funding priority that Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley says his party is in line with. One difference is scale. Senate Democrats say the state has underestimated revenue too conservatively in past budget periods, leaving opportunities on the table and creating artificial surpluses in the future. A Democratic Senate, Feltes and others say, would set those estimates more optimistically.

In other words, the pool of anticipated money would likely grow, and the Democrats say they could spend more of it from the get-go.

Protecting pre-existing conditions at state level

A major emphasis for national Democratic campaigns this year was health care, specifically protections for pre-existing conditions. Amid congressional Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination against those conditions by insurers, as well as an ongoing lawsuit by states’ attorneys general that would end the protection if successful, national Democrats vowed to safeguard those protections if in power.

New Hampshire state Senate Democrats want to take that a step further, enshrining the protections in state law. Legislation could hold insurers to the same standard as the federal law, ensuring no New Hampshire plans could discriminate against those with debilitating and costly conditions even if something happened to the national law down the line.

It’s the kind of vow that has proven politically powerful for national Democrats. Protections for pre-existing conditions are widely considered the most popular parts of the ACA.

And if successfully implemented in state law next biennium, it could prove difficult for future legislatures to repeal without facing a significant backlash.

The plan distributed to reporters says a Democratic bill would also “shore up New Hampshire protections on short-term, insufficient insurance plans” – just as new federal rule changes and laws have opened up the possibility of “association health plans” and short-term insurance plans that offer less coverage but cheaper rates.

It’s a proposal with political wings. We’ll see how insurance company lobbyists respond.

Cutting out the ‘keno’from ‘kenogarten’

Chief among the selling points for Sununu’s re-election campaign was full-day kindergarten. He was the first governor to secure it for New Hampshire, he points out often. But Democrats have long bristled at the mechanism for much of the funding: the barroom gambling game keno, unrolled across the state in the past year.

With a new majority, Democratic Sen. David Watters says to expect a bill that would fund full-day kindergarten entirely with state money, and use keno as a source of funding for the school building aid fund.

Whether Sununu takes well to one of his favored policies facing alterations remains to be seen.

Repealing thenew voting laws?

One of the earliest proposals in the list of legislative service requests this year was a bill to repeal House Bill 1264, the legal change that would effectively make voting an act of residency and could impose motor vehicle expenses for those who cast ballots. That bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Martha Hennessey, will probably accompany efforts to repeal Senate Bill 3, a 2017 bill that increases documentation requirements at the polls.

Democrats are determined to turn the changes back. But in this area, like many, they face strong opposition from Sununu and a less-than-veto-proof majority.

It hits at a central problem for Democrats: While powerful, they aren’t invincible. Battles will have to be chosen, compromises reached.

Sununu said his office would be receptive. “We’ve had an open door policy,” he said of his future relationship with Democrats. “Everything’s on the table.”

For Bradley, who must give up his post as majority leader, cooperation is possible, but conditional.

“I think it depends on what our Democratic colleagues want to do,” Bradley said. “If they want to lead us back to where we were in 2009, with an $800 million budget deficit and a hundred new taxes, there’s not going to be a lot of room to agree on things. If on the other hand they want to help us maintain a growing economy, I think that there’ll be opportunity to work together. Solve problems.”

But for Feltes, it’s much more simple. “One of the reasons why Democrats won the Senate is because we put forward a plan,” he said. “We have commitments to voters about what we’re going to do.”

What happens next will be up to both sides.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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