From the Dome – July 15, 2013 – Final Legislative Update of the Session

An Article in the From the Dome Series for the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. Originally published July 15, 2013.

By: Martin P. Honigberg and Jay Surdukowski

After four months of budgetary wrangling which included heated debate over casino gaming and gas tax revenue, the legislature quietly and almost unanimously passed a compromise budget as well as a smattering of new laws which may affect your business and the greater Concord region. In this final legislative alert of the session, we bring a budget wrap-up, a peek at the capital budget which will potentially have a large impact on Concord, and a potpourri of measures, large and small, which have made it onto “the books.” We also touch on the Medicaid Expansion Commission’s work – an endeavor which may mean a rare special session of the Legislature this fall.

I. In like a Lion, Out like a Lamb: Compromise Budget Sails Through

Recall that Governor Maggie Hassan’s budget was released on Valentine’s Day. Four-and-a-half months later, a budget which resembles the budget adopted by the Republican-controlled state Senate received overwhelming passage in both houses, winning bipartisan praise-not to mention bipartisan credit-taking. House Bill 1, the operating budget, passed the state Senate unanimously and cleared the House on a 337-18 vote. House Bill 2, the so-called “trailer bill,” which makes changes to state laws as part of implementing the budget, also passed the Senate unanimously and the House on a 346-12 vote.

Of note, the $10.7 billion budget does not increase any taxes or fees. Several much-debated revenue sources including casino gaming, the gas tax, and an increase to the cigarette tax, all went down in defeat. The big winners in the budget were increased funds for the mental health system, robust funding for community colleges, and some restoration of cuts to the University System of New Hampshire, which saw its funding halved in the last session. The historically shortchanged Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) was fully funded, and the budget included funding for four new public charter schools.

Interestingly, the end of the session was not dominated by renewed negotiations over gambling or the gas tax – initiatives much beloved by the Senate and House, respectively. Rather, the final legislative sticking point was whether New Hampshire would accept several billion dollars in funds as part of Medicaid expansion. As a refresher, states across the country are debating whether to accept additional funds from the federal government as part of national healthcare reform. The funds are meant to provide more coverage for uninsured Americans. Governor Hassan strongly supports accepting such funds. Estimates are that in New Hampshire, approximately 58,000 low-income residents would receive health care if the state accepted additional Medicaid funds.

New Hampshire Republicans fiercely oppose Medicaid expansion, fearing that once New Hampshire accepts multi-billion dollar Medicaid expansion grants, it will become dependent on the funding which may not last forever. Democrats, on the other hand, believe the state would be foolhardy to turn down money to insure some of New Hampshire’s neediest citizens. In addition, Democrats point to a positive economic impact on the state, especially in the hospital sector which is a major source of state growth and revenue.

Interestingly, some of the most well-known conservative Republican governors in the country support Medicaid expansion including Governor Chris Christie, Republican of New Jersey, and Jan Brewer, the well-known governor of Arizona who has made headlines over her hard line stances on immigration and national border security. New Hampshire Republicans, especially leadership in the state Senate and former Speaker William O’Brien in the House, are not following suit and are holding firm in opposition.

The compromise that ultimately allowed passage of a budget was the appointment of a Medicaid Expansion Commission. This nine-member commission will have until October 15th to study and release a report on whether New Hampshire should opt-in to the expanded Medicaid system. The commission consists of both Democrats and Republicans and is chaired by Jim Varnum, the former president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. Travis Harker, president of the New Hampshire Medical Society and a family care physician practicing in Concord is among the panel members. Governor Hassan and others predict that a special session will be convened in the fall to vote on whether to accept Medicaid funds after the Commission’s report is released. Expect to see the 2014 election loom large on how individual members of the commission posture during its work. At least one purported candidate for higher office is serving on the commission: Concord businessman and Republican Senator from Bedford, Andy Sanborn.

II. Capital Budget Could be Major Boon to Concord

A $245 million “capital budget” also cleared the State House and was signed by Governor Hassan. The capital budget includes funds for public works projects. The biggest ticket item in the capital budget this biennium is $38 million for a new women’s prison, likely to be built in Concord. Although funding for a new women’s prison has been a political football for some time, a recent lawsuit which was highly critical of the conditions of the women’s prison in Goffstown is widely seen by commentators as the impetus for legislative action this year. The capital budget also includes funding for two other Concord buildings. The Circuit Court in Concord will get a new roof, and, more visibly, the State House dome will be re-gilded – just in time for the massive downtown redesign project which is set to break ground in September.

III. Legislative Potpourri

The budget was certainly the most important and high-profile aspect of the last session. However, a number of other measures made it through an at-times tortured path to becoming law. Among new laws going into effect are the following:

* Speed limits north of Concord on the state’s highways will soon be 70 mph (from Canterbury to the New Hampshire border, but not in Franconia Notch).

* Bars in New Hampshire will now be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. instead of 1 a.m. if towns and cities allow them to do so.

* New Hampshire will become the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana and the last in New England to do so. Proponents of the law believe that it is the most stringent in the nation in terms of safeguards against drug abuse. The law is already prompting economic development debates about where to site medical marijuana facilities and several North Country locations have been floated in recent days.

* New Hampshire will soon be required to disclose the percentage of dollars that go to charities from charitable gaming. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, urged passage of this bill to bring some transparency to the question of just how much charitable gaming money is actually going to charities and how much is being pocketed by vendors.

* The state’s home brewer law has been expanded to allow home-vintners to make between 100 and 200 gallons of wine at home depending on household size.

* Bed and breakfasts will be able to get licenses to serve liquor to their guests.

* The white potato officially becomes the state vegetable on August 3rd. A group of students from Derry championed this measure.