Capital beat: A roundup of the 2014 legislative year
Over the course of six months and more than 30 session days, House and Senate members worked their way through 700-plus proposed bills this year, passing 242 of them. Gov. Maggie Hassan has signed just 27 of them so far, and her spokesman didn’t say last week whether she’s considering vetoing any of them. One of the biggest bills to come out of the session, and the one Democrats say they’re most proud of, is the “health protection plan,” aka New Hampshire’s version of Medicaid expansion. But lawmakers also passed dozens of significant bills in the areas of health care, education, criminal justice and business. As with every session, there are new rules about what you can and can’t do (such as talk on your cell phone while driving) and what is and isn’t taxed (after a lengthy debate, there won’t be a new tax on paint). Here’s a breakdown of some noteworthy pieces of legislation passed this year (more information is available by searching the provided bill number on the Legislature’s website):
Medicaid expansion (SB 413): After months of trying to find a compromise, senators left a special session last November without an agreement for expanding Medicaid, an option available to states under the Affordable Care Act. But early this year, a bipartisan group of six senators came up with a plan that uses federal Medicaid dollars to help poor adults purchase private health plans on the exchange. The plan is expected to help roughly 50,000 low-income adults. Most of it relies on waivers from the federal government, which the state submitted recently. The plan is set to expire in three years unless the next Legislature extends it. Reaching a deal is a win for Hassan, who risked being one of just a few Democratic governors not to expand Medicaid. Hassan signed this bill in March.
Drug-free workplace policies (HB 597): Partly in response to the Hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital in 2012, lawmakers passed a bill that requires licensed health care facilities and providers to have procedures aimed at preventing and detecting substance abuse or diversion by employees. The governor has signed this bill.
Medicaid Enhancement Tax (SB 369): Under a recently devised plan, hospitals will continue paying a 5.5 percent tax on inpatient and outpatient services but get more of it back as reimbursement for uncompensated and charity care. Under this new arrangement, 25 of the state’s 26 hospitals won’t pursue lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the tax.
Psychiatric crisis unit (SB 235): This bill requires the state to open up a 10-bed psychiatric crisis unit by July 1, 2015, as part of the state’s ongoing commitment to improving mental health services.
Paycheck equity (SB 207): As of Jan. 1, employers won’t be able to ban employees from discussing their pay, part of an effort to ensure women and men get equal pay for equal work. Democratic leadership and Hassan championed this bill, and it received unanimous support in the Senate. This bill also extends the time for bringing lawsuits from one year to three years after discovery of pay discrepancy.
Benefit corporations (SB 215): Companies will be able to take on a social responsibility as well as a fiduciary one by becoming a benefit corporation. Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she heard from young people, shareholders and businesses that were looking to work for or invest in businesses that formally focus on social good alongside profits.
Protecting student data (HB 1587): Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, championed this bill, which limits what information about students the state Department of Education can store and allows parents to see what information the department does have on file about their children. This bill, which Hassan has signed, should assuage some concerns about data collection from new Common Core-aligned computer tests.
Providing test materials (HB 1238): Another Common Core related bill requires the Department of Education to make the new test questions available online after the tests are completed, giving parents a better idea of what their children are expected to know and be able to do.
Four years of math (HB 533): If Hassan signs this bill, high-schoolers statewide will be required to take a math-related course for every year of high school. Three of the courses must be traditional math courses and the fourth can be an elective course that includes math.
In-state tuition for vets (HB 624): If signed, this bill will waive New Hampshire residency requirements for veterans to get in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
Animal protections (HB 1410): Victims of domestic violence will soon have an avenue for protecting family pets from their abusers. Under this bill, victims may get temporary protective orders to extend to the family animals if there is an immediate threat.
Strengthening visitation centers (SB 205): This is one of a handful of bills crafted in response to the murder-suicide at a Manchester YWCA last fall that left 9-year-old Joshua Savyon dead. His father, Muni Savyon, wasn’t scanned by a metal detector when he entered the building with a gun he used to kill Joshua, then himself. This bill allows a court to order that visitations only occur at centers with metal detectors and creates a committee to study procedures at visitation centers.
Joshua’s Law (SB 318): This bill, named after Joshua, designates domestic violence as a specific crime. Under current law, abuse between spouses, family members or intimate partners would typically be classified as simple assault or another crime, but this bill will allow abusers to be charged with domestic violence. Advocates and law enforcement officials say it will help them better respond to repeated cases of domestic violence, because they’ll be able to see whether a past pattern of domestic violence exists. Only three Republican House members voted against this bill, and it passed the Senate unanimously.
Human trafficking (SB 317): Lawmakers voted to strengthen penalties against human traffickers and allow victims to sue their capturers civilly, among other things. This bill passed the New Hampshire House and Senate unanimously, which is a rare feat.
Termination of parental rights (SB 253): Under this bill, women who become pregnant after rape will now have an avenue to permanently cut their rapist out of the child’s life. This bill sets up a system for women to request that a court terminate the parental rights of the rapist if it is found to be in the best interest of the child. House lawmakers weren’t able to secure a provision that still allowed women who cut off rights to collect child support, but ultimately acceded to the Senate’s position so the bill would pass.
Oil spill preparedness (SB 325): If this bill passes, any oil companies that run pipelines through New Hampshire will be required to submit an oil spill response plan to the state Department of Safety. Portland Pipe Line Corp. runs a crude oil pipeline from Portland, Maine, to Montreal through the North Country. The New Hampshire Audubon Society was a strong supporter of this bill, as the pipeline runs through more than 70 stream and wetland crossings, which advocates said could be severely damaged in the event of a spill.
Divestiture and wind (HB 1624): Lawmakers combined two energy related bills into one during a committee of conference, tackling possible divestiture of Public Service of New Hampshire’s assets and requirements for siting wind turbines, both controversial projects. One piece gives the Public Utilities Commission the power to decide whether PSNH should sell off some of its old plants in an effort to ultimately save ratepayers money. Proponents of this bill said giving that power to the PUC is better than leaving it with lawmakers so that the decision isn’t made based on political pressures. The other half of the bill lays out specific guidelines the state must follow when approving wind projects, including evaluating aesthetic, sound and environmental effects. Originally this bill was aimed at putting an outright ban on new wind projects, but it was watered down over time in the face of opposition to a moratorium.
Gas tax (SB 367): On July 1, the tax on gasoline will go up by 4.2 cents per gallon, the first increase since 1991. The extra money, about $32 million each year, will be designated for infrastructure improvements, such as fixing roads, repairing bridges and widening Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester. New taxes (proponents of this bill prefer to call it a “user fee”) generate controversy, and this 4-cent increase is far lower than the 12-cent increase proposed last year. But this bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Rausch of Derry, who argued infrastructure improvements are crucial for the state’s future, and ultimately gained enough bipartisan support to pass. It also removes the tolls at Exit 12 in Merrimack on the Everett Turnpike and creates a committee to study whether the state Department of Transportation is using its money effectively. Some Republicans argued the new tax wouldn’t be needed if other agencies would stop “robbing” the state’s highway fund. The governor signed this bill last month.
Cell phone ban (HB 1360): Bluetooth purchases could soon skyrocket in New Hampshire, as by next year it will be illegal to talk on a handheld cell phone while driving if the governor signs this bill. New Hampshire law already bans texting while driving, but this new bill will also ban holding a phone to talk or punching numbers into a GPS while behind the wheel, even when stopped at a traffic light. Talking on hands-free devices, or ones that require just one touch to talk, will still be permissible, and you can talk on your phone if you legally pull over to the side of the road.
Mental health courts (HB 1442): If signed, this bill will allow circuit or superior courts to create special mental health courts that are designated to handle judicial proceedings for crimes committed by people suffering from mental illness. Advocates for these types of courts argue there are more effective ways to sentence mentally ill people than the traditional system allows, such as mandating treatment rather than sending someone to jail.
Exploiting the elderly (HB 1555): This bill makes it a crime to financially exploit elderly, disabled or mentally impaired adults and imposes a mandatory prison sentence for anyone caught doing so more than once.
Raising the juvenile age (HB 1624): New Hampshire’s juvenile age is going from 17 back up to 18, a move that advocates of juvenile justice say is more appropriate when it comes to sentencing youths who commit crimes. This bill also revamps parts of the juvenile justice system in an attempt to better understand and respond to minors who commit crimes. Under the bill, the state Department of Health and Human Services will be required to annually collect data on the juvenile justice system and report it to the Legislature.
No driving 100-plus mph (SB 246): Driving more than 100 mph will now fall under the crime of reckless driving, bringing more serious consequences than a standard speeding ticket, including a fine of at least $500 and a 60-day license revocation.
Protest buffer zones (SB 319): Protesting within 25 feet of reproductive health facilities that provide abortions will soon be illegal. Protesters within the designated “buffer zone” will first get a written warning then will be ticketed for a violation, carrying a minimum fine of $100 if they don’t comply. A similar law in Massachusetts, which sets the buffer zone at 35 feet, was recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that it violates the First Amendment. The justices have yet to rule, but New Hampshire senators said they believe this law is different from Massachusetts’s law and does not violate anyone’s right to protest. Hassan plans to sign this bill Tuesday.
Some of the session’s more belabored debates were over bills that didn’t pass. They include casino gambling, repealing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage, legalizing or decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, adding a home-grow provision for the medical marijuana law and expanding background checks for gun purchases.
School’s out, but not for long
The legislative session may be over, but the work doesn’t stop for those running for re-election (or the reporters covering them, for that matter). This column will continue to run Sundays, now with a greater focus on elections. Feel free to send along your thoughts and reviews of my coverage of this year’s legislative action or what you’d like to see going forward. And, as always, I’m happy to receive your tips, tidbits and pieces of political news.
Editor’s note: This article ran in the June 8 edition of the Concord Monitor.