Eagle Tribune: Legislature returns in N.H. to take up Medicaid, gambling, gas tax
CONCORD — Casino gambling, a gas tax increase and Medicaid expansion are issues expected to see debate in the upcoming legislative session.
Marijuana legalization also will get attention from lawmakers.
Senate and House lawmakers return to business Wednesday. But representatives said they don’t anticipate completing their first-day calendar.
“A lot of bills will come out of the consent calendar,” said Rep. Mary Allen, R-Newton. “I’m not sure we are going to get through them all.”
Debate will have a familiar feel as legislators head into an election year.
“The two big issues this year will be Medicaid expansion and the gas tax,” said Greg Moore, state director for Americans for Prosperity. “Throw gaming in there, and I think those are your top three issues.”
A lot of the issues are familiar.
“It will not be much different from last year,” said Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director for Granite State Progress.
Democrats and Republicans failed in a special session last fall to agree on a plan to expand Medicaid to cover about 50,000 low-income people, but discussions will continue.
“Medicaid will still be an issue and there certainly is a desire to find a solution,” said Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry.
He acknowledges differences remain among Democrats and Republicans, who see a bigger role for the private sector.
Rep. Lisa Whittemore, D-Londonderry, said she supports Medicaid expansion because it will bring as much as $300 million in federal funding to help meet people’s needs.
The Legislature needs to show leadership on Medicaid, she said.
“This will be proof of our ability to put aside partisan differences,” Whittemore said.
But Republicans remain wary.
“The big issue is that we’re just a small state,” Rausch said. “If the federal government decreases funding, we don’t have the wherewithal to pick up the slack.”
Rausch will find himself in the middle of two legislative fights, raising the gas tax and approving casino gambling.
The Senate blocked a proposed gas tax increase passed in the House last year.
But Rausch sees a tax increase as a way to fund needed highway work.
He would tie the tax to the consumer price index, a move that could cost drivers at least 4 cents more per gallon.
Rausch is receiving bipartisan support for his bill.
“There certainly is an understanding we need to maintain our infrastructure,” Rausch said.
Rep. Mary Till, D-Derry, said she likely will support Rausch’s bill.
“I definitely think we need revenue to build up our infrastructure,” Till said.
Whittemore also is open to Rausch’s proposal, saying the state can’t afford to keep looking the other way as infrastructure ages. She said the state needs to show infrastructure matters if it wants to attract new companies.
But there will be opposition.
Allen said a 4-cent increase will hurt people.
“That’s a high percentage when gas is $3 a gallon,” she said.
Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham, doesn’t think it will pass.
“We don’t want to go for that,” she said. “We need to take care of people.”
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, who has opposed a gas tax increase, is concerned the Rausch proposal could succeed.
“That could easily pass,” Baldasaro said. “I hope I can talk him out of it.”
Rice Hawkins said the state needs to deal with the infrastructure problem now.
“The longer we let it go, the more costly it will be for the state,” she said.
Moore said it’s a bad idea for working families.
“For the 18 cents per gallon that we pay right now in gas taxes, only 12 cents are fixing our bridges and roads,” Moore said. “This has become an issue of integrity with the citizens, who are being sold a bait-and-switch.”
Casino gambling passed the Senate last session and has Gov. Maggie Hassan’s support. But the House rejected casino gambling.
A new proposal is coming before the Legislature, accompanied by a regulatory framework that is endorsed by a study panel.
“The casino will be a big issue,” said Griffin, who has advocated establishing one at Rockingham Park in Salem.
She is optimistic the gambling plan will win approval.
“Some of the Democrats who had opposed it will now support it,” she said.
Allen also expects casino gambling, which Rausch has backed, could win approval.
“That probably has a better chance than it did,” Allen said.
The gambling proposal should answer concerns about regulation, Whittemore said, plus public approval remains high for casino gambling.
“I have talked to my constituents in Londonderry and there is quite widespread approval for this,” she said.
Rausch views casino gaming not just as a revenue source, but one that would keep New Hampshire competitive with neighboring Massachusetts, which is allowing casinos.
“We have to be in a competitive position,” Rausch said.
Lawmakers also will consider approving keno gambling, something Baldasaro advocates.
The Legislature last year approved letting people use marijuana for medical reasons and this year will consider permitting people to have up to 1 ounce for recreational purposes.
Proponents do not expect it to be passed. The governor has said she will veto it.
But that’s not stopping legislative backers like Baldasaro.
“We’re losing the drug war,” Baldasaro said. “We need to focus more on hard drugs.”
Till plans to support a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods.
“Customers have a right to know what’s in the food they are purchasing,” Till said.
Griffin maintains fiscal considerations will drive debate, too.
“We’re still fighting over the budget,” she said. “We don’t have more money. We have to be very careful.”
The looming election also will matter.
“The challenge of 2014, obviously, is this is an election year,” Rice Hawkins said.
She points to the Medicaid issue as one that could be affected by the campaign.
She said there is widespread, bipartisan support for expanding Medicaid, but opposition from a small group of legislators concerned about catering to their right wing base.
That means the burden will be on constituents to contact their legislators to make a difference, she said.
Whittemore, a freshman lawmaker, said to check back with her in six months to see if this session in an election year seems more difficult than last.
She concedes that’s a possibility.
“Probably this session will be a lot more down and dirty,” Whittemore said. “I would not be surprised that we’ll see a lot more animosity this year than last.”