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Upon return to State House, Senate discusses minimum wage, voting

  • State Senators Dan Feltes (center) and Kevin Cavanaugh practice social distancing before the senate session on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 in Representatives Hall. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • State Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh from Manchester takes a selfie while social distancing befor the senate session at the Representatives Hall at the State House on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • State senators take the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER /Monitor staff

  • State Senators get ready for their session in Representatives Hall at the State House on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/16/2020 5:01:14 PM

The New Hampshire Senate voted to approve an aggressive cap on insulin prices and create a new drug importation program from Canada, in a unanimous vote during a marathon end-of-session day. 

Voting 24-0, the chamber approved a bundle of prescription drug regulations, including a requirement that health insurers keep the total monthly cost for insulin to $30 or less. 

The measure, which Concord Sen. Dan Feltes called “the most aggressive price cap on insulin in the nation,” would also exempt prescription insulin drugs from deductibles. 

About 130,000 people in New Hampshire – one in 10 – have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Insulin costs have risen considerably in recent years, setting back families hundreds of dollars a month and forcing some to ration.

“This bill will save lives,” said Sen. Tom Sherman, a practicing endocrinologist. “It will help people feel better. It will help people be healthier.”

The omnibus bill also included a program to allow wholesale drug imports from Canada – a measure that has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu. It also requires that insurers cover the cost of EpiPens for those with allergies.

The vote was part of a blitz of legislation Tuesday, on a rare day that brought all 24 senators back into the State House after months of inactivity. To expedite the day, Senate committees have spent weeks bundling individual bills into thematic packages. Tuesday, they voted on many as a block.

Minimum wage

Senators sparred briefly over a long-contentious political effort: a hike to the state’s minimum wage. Senate President Donna Soucy brought back an effort to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2023 – up from $7.25 today.

In pressing for the increase – which Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed last year – Democrats pointed to the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has set record unemployment rates. But Republicans continued their opposition.

Bradley said the effort was well-meaning but would bring “adverse consequences.” He argued the bill would work against the state’s effort to revitalize its economy. A minimum wage would negatively impact businesses’ ability to offer jobs, he said.

“If New Hampshire is going to recover and get back to the economy we enjoyed when we were last in this building … the only way we do that is to make New Hampshire the single most competitive state in the country,” he said.

“While it is well-intentioned and will help some people, it clearly will hurt others,” Bradley added of the measure.

Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, a Peterborough Democrat, argued that the economic inequalities brought about by the COVID-19 business shut down were too great for businesses to solve on their own.

“We had an economy that looked good on the average,” Dietsch said. “But the pandemic has widened the disparity and made the difference between the haves and the have-nots more clear.”

In the end, the vote was approved, 14-10.

Unemployment benefits

Where most efforts advanced on party lines, one proposed economic measure came up short, after division among Democrats. A push by Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat, to make permanent temporary increases to state unemployment benefits drew opposition from two members of his party.

Sen. Shannon Chandley, an Amherst Democrat, pushed the body to strip out the permanent unemployment benefits increases.

Feltes disagreed, noting that there had not been an increase in unemployment benefits since 2002, and that New Hampshire lags below other states.

Returning to the distribution levels before Sununu’s executive order would mean returning to a minimum of $32 a week, depending on income, Feltes said.

The situation would be exacerbated by the expected expiration of the $600 federal boost to unemployment insurance, Feltes argued.

“Those benefits are actually keeping those families afloat and they’re keeping those businesses’ rent payments and everything else,” he said.

But Bradley warned of significant cost increases to employers around the state due to the strain on New Hampshire’s unemployment trust fund. Businesses in New Hampshire are required to contribute to that fund; their contributions rise as the fund decreases.

“It’s very important that our employers not face what’s likely to be a massive tax increase,” Bradley said.

Sen. Sharon Carson also raised the example of business.

“I challenge all of your to look in your district,” Carson said. “How many long term businesses have gone out? They’ve shuttered their doors because they could not make it through this crisis. ...So now we’re talking about increasing their payments into the employment security fund?”

And Sen. Chuck Morse said that businesses are already facing increases to their unemployment security fund contributions under the current system.

“To say that this isn’t going to affect our economy in the state of New Hampshire is absolutely wrong,” he said.

Republicans took issue with a proposed expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act to allow workers to use COVID-19 infection in the family as a reason for taking leave. The bill would expand the number of businesses that need to offer that leave, lowering the minimum employee level to 15.

But Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, agreed with Feltes, calling the package “absolutely critical.”

“This is basic human dignity, human rights, human interests,” he said.

Election reform

Among the legislation passed Tuesday was an election reform package – but not without Republican opposition.

A package of bills included a measure to permanently impose “no excuse” absentee voting, allowing anyone to vote absentee without explicit reason, as well as the creation of an online voter registration program.

Sen. Melanie Levesque, a Brookline Democrat who chairs the Senate Election Committee, said the measures were meant to simplify the voting process for those who have difficulty accessing it.

“The Help America Vote funds are meant to do just that: Help America Vote,” she said, referencing a 2003 federal act that brought funding and reform to state voting processes.

But Republicans balked at online voter registration, and at making absentee ballots a permanent fixture of elections Sen Bob Giuda argued that committing to ERIC in statute would effectively endorse a monopoly.

“It’s fraught with the possibility of fraud given that the list has not been cleaned in 10 years,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “There are dead people on that list, and there is no assurance of the validity … of an absentee ballot.”

Sen. Regina Birdsell, a Hampstead Republican said that the governor and Secretary of State had already put forward a process voting by absentee during the pandemic – allowing people to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a “disability.”

Sen. James Gray said New Hampshire had a very high percentage of people registered to vote. Those not wanting to show up to vote in person should provide a legitimate reason to do so, he argued.

But Sen. Tom Sherman said that many of the provisions would help modernize and streamline New Hampshire’s elections.

“There is much room to move forward,” he said.

The slate of bills passed Tuesday will head back to the House, which meets June 30 to finish final business.

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