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Tough issues still to be resolved at the State House

State House Bureau

April 28. 2018 10:40PM

CONCORD - It's crunch time in Concord.

While major legislation was resolved last week, some of the biggest bills lie ahead as the state Legislature races toward adjournment on May 24.

Still to be settled are four issues that have been debated since the current two-year session began in January of 2017: school choice, Medicaid expansion, voting rights and civil rights for transgender Granite Staters.

Will parents get state money to send their kids to private schools? Will 50,000 low-income residents keep their health insurance? Will new residency requirements for voting take effect?

Will the state's civil rights statute be amended to guarantee transgender people protection against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations?

With paid family leave, victims' rights and death penalty repeal votes behind them, lawmakers still face a crowded agenda in the few voting sessions that remain.

Voting rights

This has become one of the most contentious and confusing issues, as two House-passed bills that say essentially the same thing work their way through the Senate.

HB 1264 defines residency and makes clear that only New Hampshire residents who meet the new definition can vote in Granite State elections.

The Senate Election Law Committee last week voted along party lines to recommend passage of the bill after a raucous public hearing two weeks ago that had to be moved to a larger venue. The bill is on the agenda for a Senate vote on Wednesday, where the tally is once again expected to fall along party lines.

HB 372 says essentially the same thing, but was amended in the Senate. Senators added a lengthy preamble designed to inform any judges who might review the law in the future that the Legislature's intent is that only residents get to vote.

The House declined to agree with those changes, and a conference committee of representatives and senators will convene to work out a compromise. The most likely outcome if they succeed is a bill combining HB 372 and HB 1264 that will go back to both chambers, probably on the final day of the session.

Meanwhile, the lobbying on both sides continues.

Opponents, led by the N.H. Campaign for Voting Rights, claim the bills would require individuals to obtain a New Hampshire driver's license and car registration after they vote, effectively creating a post-election poll tax that would disproportionately affect transient residents such as snow birds and college students.

"Instead of working to limit eligible voters' access to the ballot with two identical bills in the same session, lawmakers must address the many real threats to the security of our electoral system ahead of the midterm elections, including the protection of voter data," said America Votes State Director Liz Wester. "This committee of conference should kill this confusing, counterproductive bill and if they do not, Governor Sununu must remain steadfast in his opposition to this damaging measure and veto it."

Sununu told a student activist earlier this year that he "hates" HB 372 and would veto any bill that "suppresses the student vote." According to Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt, that statement stands.

"The governor's position has not changed," Vihstadt said. "He has serious concerns with both HB 372 and HB 1264 and does not support either bill in their current form."

Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, who has led the Senate initiative on voting, said the bills are designed "to ensure that as a state we are providing a clear, fair and an easily understood foundation for our citizens to participate in the voting process."

"This legislation would align our state's voting residency requirements with those of Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont," she said.

Medicaid expansion

This was considered the "big-ticket" item in a year with no state budget to contend with, yet it has emerged as one of the bills with the most solid bipartisan consensus and gubernatorial support.

That's because there's not a lot of support for the idea of terminating federally funded health insurance for 50,000 Granite State residents in the middle of an opioid addiction crisis.

The Legislature first voted in 2014 to change the criteria for Medicaid eligibility to embrace a larger number of households as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The new version includes work or community service requirements for certain participants and conversion of the program to a managed care approach, instead of fee for service.

Funding for the state share, which rises to 10 percent by 2020, would come in part from the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund.

The complicated proposal passed the Senate on March 8 and the House for the first time on April 5, after which it was referred to the House Finance Committee for a second review.

House Finance made several changes to the bill, which will most likely force a conference committee with senators and a final vote in late May.

Jake Berry, vice president of policy at the advocacy organization New Futures, said the program is the strongest tool the state has to fight the opioid epidemic.

"It's the backbone of the Safe Stations in Manchester and Nashua, the state's 10 drug courts, and so many of our essential treatment programs. Without Medicaid expansion, these programs would suffer and we would lose the ground we've gained in the fight against addiction," he said.

School choice

The long and winding road for this bill, SB 193, started in January 2017 and could well end on Wednesday, when the full House is scheduled to take up the Finance Committee recommendation that the bill be shelved for further study.

It would give parents state funding to send their children to private schools through Education Freedom Savings Accounts.

The accounts authorized under the bill would enable parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 95 percent of the per-pupil state grant to be used for tuition or other costs at a school of the family's choice or to pay for home-schooling.

SB 193 passed the Senate in 2017 and has already passed the House on one occasion, based on the recommendation of the House Education Committee.

It is one of Sununu's favorite bills this session.

After a second review in House Finance, the bill's fortunes began to falter, over concerns about loss of funding for public schools.

Supporters of school choice are dangerously close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the House does pass the bill on the second go-round, it will have to be reconciled with the Senate version and voted on yet again, most likely on the final day of the session.

Transgender rights

Transgender residents and their families are staking their hopes on a House-passed bill, HB 1319, scheduled for a Senate vote Thursday.

The bill, similar to one that failed in 2017, would update state law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public spaces to include gender identity.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 on April 25 to send the bill to interim study, which would essentially kill it.

The lobbying group Freedom New Hampshire is hoping the full Senate will reject that recommendation and send the bill to Sununu, who has said he will sign it.

The House voted 195-129 in favor of the bill after a positive recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee.

"This is a watershed moment for New Hampshire," said Barbara MacLeod, with Freedom New Hampshire. "The nation is watching."

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