Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Conference time, when miracles can happen
This is the time of year when anything is possible.
Bills that were killed are miraculously resurrected and issues once thought put to rest resurface.
Nothing is off the table when conference committees of House and Senate negotiators sit down to try to compromise on two versions of the same bill.
Lawmakers are now at the intramurals stage, and things can become heated and nasty. This year might see even more acrimony because the House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans.
Often there are half a dozen bills or more that are interrelated, maybe not by subject matter but strategically so that one bill cannot be settled until another is set and so on.
The conference committee on the two budget bills, House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, will receive the most attention. However, some key policy bills and how the differences are resolved will have more of an effect on what direction the state takes in the next two years than the budget.
In preparation for the horse trading, the Senate Thursday loaded up five bills — that the House desperately wants — with the contents of Senate bills the House killed.
Earlier last week, the House added the contents of HB 668, which aligns the state's health insurance regulations and rules with the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), to a bill Senate Majority Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, wants, SB 148, which would make changes to the state's electric renewable portfolio law.
The Senate Commerce Committee recommended killing HB 668 on a party line vote, and the full Senate followed suit Thursday on a 13-11 vote.
House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, and Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, met Wednesday when the House was about to put HB 668 on SB 41, a Senate favorite that would overhaul the state business corporation laws.
Bragdon didn't want 668 on that bill, which has been pushed for several years by the Business and Industry Association and other business groups, and it was placed on SB 148 instead.
The House believed the subject would be kept alive, but the Senate added the language of SB 148 to HB 542 Thursday night, a bill that would change electric renewable portfolio standards.
That means the Senate can now kill SB 148, and with it HB 668, and the House has no bill alive with those provisions. Such a move, however, could result in nuclear war after Norelli and Bragdon had an understanding, so that may not happen, but the maneuver leaves the Senate in the driver's seat.
In a similar fashion, the Senate added the provisions of SB 158, which would require Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approval of any cost items in state collective bargaining agreements, to House Bill 414. The House last week had killed 58, whose prime sponsor is Bragdon.
HB 414 would prohibit employers from requiring employees to turn over passwords to their personal social media or email accounts. That's something the House wants, as do a good many senators.
The House killed SB 100, which would allow employers to issue payroll cards instead of paper checks to pay employees. The Senate added the provision of that bill to House Bill 357, which would prohibit an employer from using a person's credit history in hiring decisions.
The Senate added the provisions of a bill the House killed Wednesday changing voter registration forms to HB 664, which concerns the state vaccine program.
The House has done some of the same maneuvering, adding a provision to increase the limit on charity betting by $2 that the Senate killed in the budget bill and a resolution requiring the state to acquire a portrait of noted suffragist Marilla Marks Ricker, who was also the first woman to run for governor in New Hampshire.
If this sounds confusing, it is. And it is difficult to follow if you are trying to keep track of where the provisions of, say, the voter registration forms are.
It's like throwing 50 balls in the air at once and trying to track each one to see where it lands.
Medicaid Expansion and ACA: Medicaid expansion took a hit last week when the Senate voted along party lines to kill an amendment proposed by Democrats who wanted to add it to the next biennial budget.
The Senate debated the issue for about 90 minutes, with more than half of its 24 members speaking, including Bragdon, who has led the Senate Republican charge against Medicaid expansion.
After Bragdon finished his remarks, Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, asked him whether killing the amendment meant nothing could be done during the conference committee on the budget to address the uninsured or whether there would be an opportunity to find an alternative. Stiles is considered a swing vote on expansion,
Bragdon left the door open just a crack, saying something that reflects a "New Hampshire solution" could be considered.
What is a New Hampshire solution? Later in the day, Bragdon noted 60 to 80 percent of the people who would qualify for Medicaid if eligibility was expanded to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — or about $15,000 a year for an adult — would qualify for subsidies through the health insurance exchange set to begin Jan. 1.
And he said the biggest concern of people without health insurance is a catastrophic event that would significantly harm their family finances.
Several states have asked the Obama administration to approve expansion through private health providers.
The state currently pays insurance premiums for people who can access health insurance from other sources, such as their former employer's program through COBRA. The Medicaid Health Insurance Premium Payment program has nearly identical eligibility requirements.
So rather than putting people on the Medicaid program, they would be on private insurance plans.
Another option that could be explored would be similar to what the Maine Senate passed last week, which is to have a sunset date for expansion after the first three years, when the federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of adults covered under expansion.
That may not be all that acceptable to Republicans, as Senate Majority Leader Bradley noted during the Medicaid debate. "Would any of us here vote to take away an entitlement?" asked Bradley.
Can Bragdon and the majority of Republicans go along with an alternative? Who knows, but there are a couple of Republican senators who would sure like to see something to expand health care for the uninsured and not wait another year with an election soon to follow.
What you can be sure of is that Medicaid expansion will be the key issue for House and Senate budget negotiators working to reach a compromise on the state's two-year budget package.
Budget Negotiations: No one will confirm it officially, but budget negotiations may not start until June 17, which would mean only three days of wrangling before the Senate deadline of June 20 at noon and the House deadline of June 20 at 4 p.m.
In order to have a document to sign, negotiations would have to end sometime Wednesday night.
What is known is the Senate will not appoint the budget negotiators until Wednesday when it meets. Norelli is expected to name her negotiating team by early this week.
With the short deadlines, everyone should bring sleeping bags and lots of nonperishable food to the Legislative Office Building, where negotiations take place during those three days.
New Commissioner: Gov. Maggie Hassan's choice to be the new state Department of Labor commissioner, former House Minority Leader Jim Craig of Manchester, will have a public hearing Monday, June 17, at 5:30 p.m. in Executive Council Chambers.
The Executive Council holds public hearings on the commissioners the governor nominates to give the public an opportunity to comment on the pick.
If the results are favorable, and they almost always are, the council will vote on Craig's nomination at its next meeting, June 19.
Turkey Trip: Four representatives who recently went on a trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan saw firsthand the anti-government protests in Turkey over a police crackdown on a local protest over an Istanbul park.
The representatives on the trip, Marjorie Smith, D-Durham; Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough; Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry; and Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, all returned safely.
Smith said the protests did curtail some of their activities.
Lobster Rolls: While senators spent six hours debating the budget package last week, they did have some relief.
The ante room off the Senate floor is off limits to all but senators and staff, and many senators were taking advantage of the retreat during the debate.
On Thursday, some of the senators had an added incentive to slip away from the debate and drift into the ante room. Stiles brought lobster rolls for the senators to snack on.