Great debate

National issues hit home this year in Concord

When New Hampshire’s 424 legislators return to Concord this week, they’ll be facing a slate of bills — 954, to be exact — on a host of topics. This is the case most years, but 2016 is a little different. It’s a presidential election year, and that means issues that might otherwise be local or statewide concerns can have national implications, and vice-versa.

The legislature reconvenes a little more than a month before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which guarantees that all eyes will be on Granite State politics as the presidential candidates make their final pitch to the state’s voters.

This year’s crop of bills has a national political flavor. There are 10 bills relating to firearm regulations, with some aiming to ease restrictions and others hoping to put some more in place; nine bills related to restricting abortion (one of which calls for an investigation into Planned Parenthood); four bills that would legalize marijuana to various degrees; and two bills that would change the state’s minimum wage to either $8.25 or $12 an hour. They’re perennial local issues, but they’re also front and center in this year’s presidential campaign, and that means the debates in this year’s legislative session may be even more interesting than usual.

Medicaid and drug issues
One of the biggest topics facing legislators in 2016 is extending New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion program, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Officially known as the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, the program expands the availability of Medicaid and health insurance for low-income Granite Staters by way of the federal Affordable Care Act. Approximately 44,000 people in the state have insurance through the program, and, so far, it’s been fully funded by federal money.

However, federal funding is set to decrease in 2017. That, coupled with the two-year time limit built into the plan that legislators approved in 2014, leaves the future of the program in doubt. Gov. Maggie Hassan is pushing for reauthorization, while Republican lawmakers are looking for answers on how the state will pay for its share of the program.

Rep. Adam Schroadter (R-Newmarket), expects the Medicaid expansion debate to spill into another hot topic in the legislature: the state’s continuing heroin and opioid crisis.

“That’s going to be a big topic, and part of that we know will include Medicaid expansion,” because the expansion covers substance abuse treatment programs, he said.

Expect legislation dealing with heroin and opioids to be among the first bills lawmakers tackle. A joint legislative taskforce on the heroin and opioid epidemic issued its final report in late December and has recommended lawmakers vote on a number of bills by the end of January. Those measures include increasing penalties for distributing and manufacturing fentanyl, updating the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and mandating “age appropriate” drug and alcohol education in all public schools.

“I don’t know exactly if what comes out of the task force will be the answer … it seems to me extensive criminal justice reform would be in there,” Schroadter said.

Those reforms could include decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Schroadter is sponsoring HB 1631, which reduces the penalty for possession of a half-ounce of marijuana to a violation and reduces penalties for possession of other amounts. Schroadter sponsored a similar bill last year — that bill was approved by the House, but was voted down in the Senate. His bill is one of four that would legalize marijuana in the state.

Gun legislation
Gun control has already been a topic in the handful of presidential debates held in the last six months, and with President Barack Obama’s announcement early this month of executive orders related to gun control, the subject will only come up more often on the campaign trail. It will also be hotly debated in the statehouse.

Of the 10 firearms-related bills up for debate this session, five could establish some restrictions on owning firearms. One is HB 1368, co-sponsored by Rep. Deanna Rollo (D-Rollinsford), which would require “the seller, purchaser, and owner of a firearm to be covered by a qualified liability insurance policy.”

“The legislature recognizes that people want to keep their guns — I want people to be able to have their guns,” Rollo said. “I just want people who are law-abiding citizens to be protected, and also want dangerous people to not be able to get ahold of guns. That’s going to be one of the hot topics — making the rest of the legislature know we’re not after their guns; we just want responsibility.”

Rollo is also co-sponsoring HB 1474, which requires the commissioner of the Department of Safety to prepare an annual report that tracks at the state level all deaths or injuries related to firearms.

“We collect (data) in little pockets, so if a firearm is used in a burglary, that comes under one (category), or if a firearm is used in domestic violence, that comes under another,” she said. “We’re trying to get all that data in one place.”

The Seacoast and beyond
The session includes a number of bills with a Seacoast focus. In 2015, the state’s meals and rooms tax — and the portion of revenue that communities get from the tax — was a hot topic among lawmakers in the Seacoast. Some have called on the state to revise how that money is distributed, saying more money should go back to cities and towns in the Seacoast, where tourism generates significant tax revenue. Rep. Laura Pantelakos (D-Portsmouth) is the lead sponsor of HB 1214, which would allow towns and cities to authorize additional surcharges on hotel rooms as part of the tax.

Pantelakos and state Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark (D-Portsmouth) are also sponsoring SB 410, which would allow communities to pass ordinances banning plastic bags. City councilors in Portsmouth attempted to pass such an ordinance last year, but halted their efforts after learning that state law did not allow such ordinances.

For Rollo, the national influence on state legislation is slight. What’s most important, though, are the conversations and debates that come with each session. Some of the firearms bills she co-sponsored are “trying to be proactive, and trying to make sure the public is aware of what’s happening, and the best way to do that is to get the conversation going,” she said.


illustration by Alyssa Grenning