Nashua Telegraph: Big issues decided by small groups of legislators as the NH lawmaking session winds up
By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
CONCORD – Several grand bargains between House Democratic and Senate Republican leaders are needed before this 2013 session can come to a close.
We’re used to the tortuous process that is legislating in New Hampshire, where every lawmaker without pedigree gets a clean shot at passing, killing or changing at bill to beyond recognition. Now we are heading into that uncomfortable period when it’s up to just groups of seven lawmakers – or 10, with the state budget – to make the call.
When the House and Senate can’t agree, these conference committees try to settle the dispute. Unlike other bills, any pact that emerges from those public and private talks is not negotiable: not a single comma can be touched. It’s either embraced by both sides in its entirety or dead on arrival.
But the wide chasm between the two bodies on some big tickets in the two-year state budget – Medicaid expansion, $50 million in state job cuts, no cigarette or gasoline tax hikes – has many veteran observers wondering if this is the year no agreements will be reached.
Greg Moore is state director of Americans for Prosperity who remains optimistic that Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, can hold his team together to resist the Medicaid expansion allowed and supported under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“There are a lot of agreements on spending but there is no question this fight, and this fight alone, can crash the entire budget,” said Moore, a former House chief of staff and spokesman for Medicaid’s home agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.
Only 14 bills are currently at that conference committee stage but that number is expected to more than double by the end of this week.
Senate Republican seized on an absent House late Thursday night finding a second home for five Senate bills they supported but the House had killed.
“What’s the big deal?” said Sen. David Boutin, R-Manchester, who has served in the House. “This happens every year, and besides, the House started it first.”
Sen. Peggy Gilmour, R-Hollis, isn’t convinced. One of her big causes this year, enhancing financial support for the child vaccine program, is now hostage to a Senate GOP desire to make sure new registered voters are told that within 60 days they may have to get a New Hampshire auto registration.
“This much is obvious: If Republicans really cared about this bill and our vaccine program, they could have simply passed it without attaching a poison pill,” Gilmour said.
The negotiators for the House and Senate will not be named until later this week, although students of this game know who they are going to be. Salem Republican Sen. Chuck Morse will lead the Senate; Concord Democrat Mary Jane Wallner heads up the House delegation.
An informal briefing of the differences between competing House and Senate budget will commence Tuesday.
The first, real meeting of the budget conferees has informally been set for June 17, only four days before legislative rules call for all these compromises to be completed.
Here are some other tight contests the results of which will color the scorecard for 2013:
Medical Marijuana (HB 573): If New Hampshire is to join 19 other states that permit the chronically ill access to cannabis to ease their suffering, this is it.
Then-state Sen. Maggie Hassan voted for two medical marijuana bills, both of which were vetoed by then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch.
This one is all about whether the House of Representatives can accept this reform without permitting patients or their caregivers to grow their own.
Hassan insisted the home grown option be taken out and the Senate obliged. In return, Senate negotiators may have to give up on other changes such as returning to five and not four, state-licensed centers where the drug can be picked up and giving patients some immunity from criminal prosecution.
State Rep. Jim MacKay, D-Concord and a retired psychotherapist, is leading the dialogue.
“We can’t afford to let this opportunity slip through our fingers and believe strongly we’ll get this done,” MacKay said.
Voter ID (HB 595): This one is all about whether New Hampshire takes the second step of voter identity and makes all city and town polling places have cameras to take photographs of someone without an ID.
The House wants to scrap this second phase while the Senate wants to put it off two more years from this September to the same month in 2015.
City and town clerks initially favored the House bill but much to the anger of other voter advocacy groups they embraced the Senate version that right away would eliminate student picture cards as IDs acceptable at the polls.
Capital Budget (HB 25): Every two years, this budget with public works projects gets so much less publicity but can be argued creates more jobs and economic spinoff than the general budget.
House and Senate versions spend about $245 million in total dollars just over a third of that coming from bonds backed by state taxpayers, the rest in federal grants and dedicated sources.
They each embrace a new, $38 million prison for women, $8 million spending on college campuses, new liquor stores in Salem, Warner and Epping and a $5 million federal incentive needed to wrap up the $25 million budget to repair the Sara Long Bridge spanning Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine.
State Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, will head up this one as chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee.
“There are some small but important differences but they’ll get worked out,” Campbell said during a recent interview.
Single Liquor Commissioner (HB 599): There seemed to be universal agreement in January that the three-person liquor panel should be collapsed into a single chief executive.
But the Senate version of this one would give enhanced, nearly coequal powers to a deputy commissioner and also convert three, division directors from classified or non-political appointments to ones that in the future would have go get Executive Council confirmation.
Child Safety Seats (HB 242): How old and how small does a child have to be to be placed into a “child restraint system” and not an adult system?
Rep. Mary Knowles, D-Hudson, is a co-author of this one that in the House would raise that age from 6 to 7 and the height exempting that child from 55 to 56 inches tall.
The Senate’s response: Let’s raise it to eight years old and the height standard to 57 inches.
Charity Bets (HB 314): The big expanded gambling bill, legalizing a single casino, is dead thanks to bipartisan opposition in the House of Representative but advocates of the current, legal form of casino-style games run for non-profits have been mobilizing.
The House embraced raising the legal maximum bet at these gaming tables to $6 from its current, $4 limit but the Senate rejected it. The two sides are also fighting over how much these charities should at least get from the take, the House setting the floor at 30 percent, the Senate raising that ante to 35 percent.