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Fruits of debate: Bills become  laws, get results

Most House and Senate members were home last week as the budget and many other bills became laws. These bills joined others past earlier that had already become law.

I think back to the long hours of debate and presentations in public hearings and the private discussions between stakeholders and other legislators about what the impact will be of proposed legislation.

Recently, we saw the reaction some new laws caused.

Higher education

The most immediate was the commitment of the University System of New Hampshire trustees to freeze tuition for in-state students in response to the new state budget that restores much of the state funding that was slashed in 2011. Trustees of the community college system also decided to freeze tuition at their institutions.

The state’s public higher education systems have secure funding for the next two years. But when legislative budget writing begins again in 2015, there will be new battles over funding for the state’s university and colleges. The university system will face the always present concern about high salaries and new inquiries about other administrative policies. But until 2015, the system will pretty be much on its own.

If there was a popularity contest in the legislature between the community college system and the university system, I sense the community college system would win hands down. That may reflect the close ties many legislators have with their local colleges. Plus, high value is placed on the association the colleges have in training workers for local businesses.

Energy

To help lower the cost of electricity, the Public Utilities Commission issued a report in June suggesting that Public Service of New Hampshire dispose of its coal fired plants. PSNH responded last week sharply criticizing the report citing costly legislative mandates that have been put on the company in the last decade and pointing out the danger of being too dependent on natural gas as a fuel source for electricity production.

The issue has reached a critical stage as new entrants in the energy marketplace are driving PSNH retail customers to other sellers of electricity. Most of the commercial and industrial customers of PSNH had already moved to other power suppliers. This means the built-in costs of PSNH power are charged to a smaller and smaller PSNH customer base.

I was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 191, which creates the State Energy Advisory Council to develop a long term energy plan to deal with issues such as whether or not PSNH should give up its coal fired plants and how do we lower the cost of electricity in New Hampshire overall.

The state has a state energy plan created more than a decade ago. That was before natural gas prices dropped dramatically so that now more than half of the electricity produced in New England comes from gas. And the plan was written when people were looking forward to wind power. Now, instead of support for wind power, there is more and more push back from impacted communities.

Renewal energy will be an important part of the discussion around a new energy plan. Rather than simply overseeing the writing of a plan, the council will continue to monitor and adjust the plan as the energy marketplace and technology change.

Health care

In early February, the Senate Rules Committee voted to allow me to introduce a bill to implement the Medicaid family planning expansion. The time period for introduction of bills had passed so I needed the help of the Rules Committee to introduce a new bill, Senate Bill 194.

I was a co-sponsor of a similar bill in 2007. Both bills require the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the family planning Medicaid waiver. The bill in 2007 sailed through the legislature but the department, using excuse after excuse, did not follow the law.

With the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan and bi-partisan legislative sponsorship, the result this year was different. The Senate took exactly one month from introduction to passage on the floor on a voice vote. It took the House another month or so and the vote on the House floor was 212 to 120.

Over the years, HHS had said they did not have the technology to process claims so they did not want to implement this waiver. We actually had to put in the bill language that the department “…shall manually process the payment of claims or contract with a third party administrator …” if necessary to get the claims processed.

At the Senate public hearing on the bill, Sen. Andy Sanborn of Bedford asked a department representative why she had changed her mind about the time it would take to get this waiver in place. She had previously said it would take many months but had switched to say it could be done in either 60 or 90 days. The answer: “I have been told to get it done.”

Implementing this waiver will help the state realize a 90 percent federal Medicaid match for family planning services. One health care provider reported in a voice mail message left for me that in the first few days of implementation, 60 new patients had signed up for services at her agency. The net impact for the state is an estimated gain of nearly $10 million per year.

SB 194 in not related to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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