Capital Comments: Gov. Hassan unveils budget Feb. 14

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

The long wait to learn what Governor Maggie Hassan is putting into her budget will end on Thursday.  Promptly at 10 o’clock in the morning, she will be introduced into Representatives Hall and with little ceremony will be introduced again for the purpose of making her budget address.

This happens in New Hampshire every two years.  And the Governor’s address sets the framework for the work the House and Senate will do before passing a two year budget in June for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Briefings give budget writers plenty to ponder

Senator Bob OdellCapital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

One newspaper’s front page headline on Tuesday read, “For NH budget writers, it’s doom and gloom.”

The article was about a long day of briefings for House and Senate Finance and Ways and Means Committee members. Every two years the House and Senate invite in economic experts and analysts to put things in perspective as the budget writing process is beginning.

I remind my colleagues that the Governor will take the first step next month when she announces her budget plan in an address to a joint session of the legislature. That address will set out her spending plans that will tell us her policy goals. And she will explain her predictions on revenue for the next two years beginning on July 1.

Here is some of the news legislators heard.

First, economic growth is anemic. It is taking us longer to recover from the recession which officially ended months ago. And New Hampshire for the first time in memory is recovering more slowly than other states in New England except for Rhode Island. New England is also recovering more slowly than the rest of the country. That’s not good. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Senator Bradgon announces committee assignments

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

Organization Day, held on the first Wednesday in December in election years, is the opportunity for the new Senate and House to meet for the first time.  It is an occasion for legislators to share a special day with family and friends. Continue reading

Capital Comments: N.H. biennial budget process underway

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

The sparring over the size of the state’s next biennial budget began last week.  Over three days, agency heads offered their wish lists for appropriations for the two year budget cycle that begins on July 1.

Presentations at the Governor’s Fiscal Year 2014-15 Operating Budget Hearing, one of several steps in the budget process, gave department heads a chance to tell their stories publicly for the first time.  They will have plenty of other opportunities down the road.

The agency heads were providing the Governor, legislators and the public with what they think the costs will be to run the current programs in each department for the next two years. Their “maintenance” budgets do not take into consideration any new programs or activities … they simply keep programs as they are.

What does that get you?  Adding up all agency requests, if approved and they won’t be, there would be additional spending of $3.3 billion over the next two years, an increase of 26 percent over current spending levels. Continue reading

Capital Comments: N.H. Medicaid and the new healthcare law

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

A constituent that I hear from periodically wants me to introduce a bill to nullify the new federal health care plan.  He writes, “Obama Care must be nullified within our state to eliminate the vast, new, unconstitutional powers over health care …”

In the days following the election, some legislators, government officials, stakeholders like insurance companies and health care providers and the media are focusing on the implications for New Hampshire of the Affordable Care Act, which even the President has said is appropriate to call Obama Care.   About 100 of them turned out last week at the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters to be briefed on the part of the new law dealing with Medicaid.

HHS Commissioner Nick Toumpas introduced the program explaining that while the U.S. Supreme found the new law constitutional, the federal government cannot force states to increase the number of people on Medicaid, the program that provides services to indigent people.  Commissioner Toumpas said policy makers, the legislature and the Governor need to determine whether or not we will expand the number of people on our Medicaid rolls.

After support for public schools, Medicaid is the next largest spending line in the budget.  To serve about 120,000 Medicaid eligible New Hampshire residents, the state spends $600 million annually that is matched by another $600 million from the federal government. Continue reading

2012 Election brings dramatic changes to Concord

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

The voters spoke last week and brought dramatic changes to Concord.

Most attention was focused on the election of a new Governor, former State Senator Maggie Hassan, and the reversal of a three to one Republican majority in the House to a 222 to 178 Democrat majority.  There is much less attention on the changes in the makeup of the State Senate.

Broadly speaking, the Republicans retained a narrow majority of 13 to 11 but that is down from 19 to 5.  Given the wholesale GOP losses in House contests, it is surprising only one Republican incumbent, Jim Luther (Hollis), lost.  And he lost to Peggy Gilmour, also of Hollis, who he defeated two years ago.

The 24 newly elected Senators will be sworn in by Governor Lynch on December 5 as required by the state constitution.  There are 14 Senators who were re-elected last week and three who are returning after being out one term having been defeated two years ago.  And there will be seven new members with four of them moving from the House to the Senate including David Pierce (Lebanon).

In 2006, history was made when the New Hampshire Senate became the first state legislative body in the country to have women make up a majority of its membership.  There were 13 women Senators between 2006 and 2010.  There will be nine women in the new Senate.

Republicans and Democrats moved quickly to choose their respective leaders.  Senator Sylvia Larsen (Concord) is the senior Senator in terms of service with ten terms and she was chosen by her Democrat caucus to lead the Senate Democrats.  Senator Peter Bragdon (Milford) was selected to lead the Republicans and with their majority he will be formally elected Senate President for a second term when the Senators gather on December 5. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Senate colleauges applaud Matt Houde

From State Senator Bob Odell

In the State Senate your age or length of service are not measures of the respect your colleagues have for you. Matt Houde (Plainfield) has proven that.

The Senate will meet in regular session just one more time, on June 6, so tradition calls for departing Senators to make some farewell remarks leading up to our final day in Concord. That started last week when Senator Ray White (Bedford) did a roll call of departing Senators with some special and often humorous comments. Senator White is leaving the Senate himself after just one term.

When he came to Matt Houde, Senator White called him a “class act” and noted that as one of the five members of the minority in the Senate, he has often been on the “losing side” over the past two years. But Senator Houde never lost his patience nor took things personally or even raised his voice in debates.

The week before Senator Houde had received a standing ovation from Senators for his work leading the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is the only member of the minority to have a committee chairmanship and the reward was an avalanche of bills to manage through the legislative process. This year more bills found themselves in Senator Houde’s committee than any other. Continue reading

Capital Comments: N.H. community colleges are “technologically savvy”

Scroll down to read about New Hampshire’s Community College System.

From State Senator Bob Odell

I sent a note of apology for missing a committee meeting of the New Hampshire Humanities Council on Wednesday because our Senate session ran late.  The executive director of the council and the spouse of a State Representative replied that no apologies were necessary given the “bruising” time the legislature was going through last week.

Thursday was the last day for either the House or Senate to act on bills this year.  And that meant it was the final chance to take bills off the table, to amend bills to send to the chamber with policies already defeated there, and to pass bills that will require a committee of conference to sort out the differences between House and Senate positions. Continue reading

Students learn about advanced manufacturing at Whelen

Scroll down to read about a private-public partnership that introduces students to advanced manufacturing at Whelen Engineering in Charlestown, New Hampshire.

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

The e-mail from a lobbyist’s iPhone read, “The telecom bill just passed STE (House Science and Technology Committee) 17-0 not amended.  Thank you for your help.  This is good legislation.”

That is the kind of message a legislator likes to receive.  I had introduced the bill (SB 48) in the fall of 2010.  Here we were 20 months later in the last week for House committees to act on Senate bills.  Those many months of work in the Senate improving the bill paid off as the House committee saw no need to amend the bill and certainly not to make any policy changes.

The bill will reduce regulation of traditional land line telephone companies such as FairPoint so they can compete more effectively and fairly with Comcast and other communications companies.  In the end, the industry supported the bill as did consumer protection groups.

The fate of the telecommunications bill was far different from what happened to many other high profile bills in the last two weeks.  The House, for example, wants to put $17.7 million surplus from the last biennium into the state’s “rainy day” while the Senate would prefer to wait to see how the finances are when the current biennium ends on June 30 of next year. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Learning for legislators is on-going

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

Each week I shuttle between meetings in my office and committee rooms in the State House and the Legislative Office Building across the street.  Every meeting, whether with a constituent, a lobbyist or government official, is a learning experience.

If I were in school, a reader might compare it to moving between classrooms as much of a legislator’s role is being educated.  That means not listening to just one side of the story on legislation … but hearing the other side, too.

Last week I jotted down some information I gained from some of my meetings.

Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee:  As if we needed reminding, state governments have become very dependent upon federal government payments to states.  New Hampshire spent $2.271 billion of money received from the federal government in fiscal year 2011 that ended last June.  Total spending by the state in the same year, depending upon the figure used, was roughly $5 billion.  That means about 45 percent of state spending comes from Washington.

The implications for New Hampshire and other states are serious.  Spending from money we raise in-state  in the current two-year budget is down 11 percent from the prior biennium.  If the federal government, as advocated by leaders of both parties, cuts spending to reduce the national deficit and long term debt, some of those reductions will hit state governments. Continue reading

NH’s economy: good news balanced by challenges

Capital Comments from Senator Bob Odell

“Crossover” or midpoint in the 2012 session, was finished a week earlier amidst some of the busiest legislative days of the year.  That meant last week there were too few bills ready for either the House or Senate to meet.

A Wednesday not in Concord is very rare.  The day off gave me an opportunity to participate in an economic development breakfast in Newport hosted by Sugar River Bank in partnership with Public Service of New Hampshire.

The event brought out a roomful of business and community leaders to hear a presentation by PSNH’s Patrick McDermott on the status of the New Hampshire economy.  And while the recovery from the recession is slow, there are some positive long term indicators of the state’s economy and our quality of life. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Three surprises — redistricting, medical marijuana, biennial sessions

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

Last Wednesday was cross over day in the State Senate.  And as I drove home late that night, I reflected on three surprises from the day.

First, in the morning, before session or caucuses started, I wrote an email response to a constituent’s request that I vote to uphold the veto by Governor John Lynch of the bill to  change the 400 House districts to match up with 2010 census population numbers.

I told the constituent that Governor Lynch had only vetoed the bill the prior Friday and it would take a week or so for the House to act on the veto.  And if the House overturned the Governor’s veto, I predicted it would be another week before the Senate would likely be able to act.

How wrong could I be?  During our noon break for the caucus of Senators from my party I learned the House had already acted and voted to override the Governor’s veto.  And the Senate President told us the Senate would act on the veto that day, too.

A few hours later, the Senate voted 17-7 to override the Governor’s veto on House redistricting.  The tradition that seems to work well in practice is that each body, the House and Senate, write their redistricting legislation every ten years and the other body rubber-stamps it.

Next stop for House redistricting?  I am sure a lawsuit will be filed soon.

Interestingly, the Governor signed the bill establishing new Senate district boundaries that will be in place effective with the fall elections.

Another surprise was the vote to implement a medical marijuana program in New Hampshire.  If it becomes law, Senate Bill 409 would allow a person credentialed by a doctor, based on the seriousness or disease they suffer from, or their designated care giver to grow up to four marijuana plants.

The marijuana produced could be used for medical treatment to relieve pain, make it possible for a person eat or help them get through their last days.  The arguments mostly came from Senators in favor of medical marijuana who explained their personal knowledge of family members or close friends who benefited from using marijuana.

Opposition was led by Chiefs of Police Association along with others from law enforcement.  It was noted that federal laws, however effectively enforced, would still make marijuana possession illegal.

When the Senate session started, the vote for the new medical marijuana program was thought to be 12 to 12.  A tie vote means the motion, in this case a motion to pass the bill, would fail.  By noon, one Senator was uncertain which direction he would go and by late evening he decided to vote for the bill.  It passed on a vote of 13-11.

Next stop for medical marijuana?  Should the bill pass the House, the Governor has announced he will veto the bill.  In that case, the bill will come back to the Senate where a two-thirds vote or 16 votes out of 24 is required to overturn a gubernatorial veto.  I think proponents will find it tough to get three more votes to do that.

Then there was a debate about annual or biennial sessions.  There are frequent conversations about whether the legislature should meet every year in annual sessions as we do now or return to the “old days” when the House and Senate were required to only meet every other year.

The legislation before the Senate last week, CACR 33, would change the state constitution to have the legislature meet every other year in biennial sessions.  That is the way it was before the 1984 Constitutional Convention recommended that citizens vote for annual legislative sessions.  The voters agreed in the elections that fall.

In the “old days” of biennial sessions, in most years when the legislature was not supposed to be meeting, it was called back for special sessions.  The special sessions became the standard and a substitute for annual sessions.

Senator Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) is the only Senator to have served under both systems and is a vocal critic of the proposed legislation.  He reminded his colleagues that when he first served in the House of Representatives in the 1970’s the state budget was $200 million.  Today the general fund budget is more than $2 billion each year and total spending with federal funds and other money is over $4 billion annually.

Senator Chuck Morse (Salem) noted that we need to do the state’s legislative business differently.  To that point, several Senators have iPads on their desks instead of stacks of paper.  The new Senate consent calendar on which bills that have general support are put together and voted on as a group at the beginning of each session is working well.

Other Senators said annual sessions kept some people from being able to serve but the Senate’s dean, Senator Jack Barnes (Raymond), who has served for more than two decades, reminded Senators that he has seen “almost perfect attendance” by Senators over the years.

In the end, the proposed constitutional amendment received a vote of 14 to 10.  A constitutional amendment needs 15 votes to go forward.  The debate on annual vs. biennial sessions is over for now.  But the vote was surprisingly close.

Senator Odell represents New Hampshire Senate District 8:  Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.

Capital Comments: NH Senate appoves prescription drug monitoring

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

At the start of each Senate session, our chaplain offers a brief comment and a prayer.

Last week, Rev. Canon Charles LaFond mentioned that he has a sign at the entryway to his house that states that conversation in that house should be “kind, true and improve on the silence.”  He suggested that in voting on the many bills on our calendar we should consider votes that would be “kind, true and help the poor and the people living on the margins of life.”

Canon LaFond’s words are always calming and welcome.  That was especially true as we headed into Wednesday’s session that started at 10 a.m. and did not end until close to 5 p.m.  Senators anticipate a similar workload this week as the legislature faces our “crossover” mark.

Often New Hampshire government is a leader in new policies but from time to time we are laggards.  That is true of laws against prescription drug abuse.  The Senate passed a bill last week to create a system to track controlled drugs, reduce the incidents of doctor shopping and prevent deadly drug overdoses.

When Senator Jeb Bradley (Wolfeboro) brought the bill (SB 286) to the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee in February, he noted that more people die in New Hampshire from legal drugs than in highway accidents.  In terms of residents in the 18-25 age category our state ranks second in the nation in abuse.  Similar programs to those in SB 286 are in use in 48 other states and are working with marked reductions in prescription drug abuse.

This is one of those bills long overdue.  There was no opposition and strong support from the Board of Medicine, emergency room physicians, Board of Pharmacy, the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services.  The N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police was a strong supporter of the bill, too, as an important public safety measure.

Given that the program will be funded through gifts, grants and user fees, no state money will be needed.  Everyone was on board and the bill sailed through the Senate on a voice vote. Continue reading

Capital Comments: RGGI, shoreland protection, and parakeets

By State Senator Bob Odell

“Tweet, tweet” Senators jokingly went back and forth. On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had its final public hearing for the 2011 session. And the hearing was on House Bill 651 allowing the sale and possession of monk, also called Quaker parakeets.

The end of our hearings on bills means that the end of session is drawing near with less than two months to go. The energy committee took care of 30 bills since its first meeting in January. The bills covered a wide range of subjects from river designations, wet lands definition issues and rules on hunting and fishing licensing. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Friday’s budget session…

This week the Senate Finance Committee continues to hear from departments and agencies; voting on the budget begins the week of May 9th. This week’s column describes last Friday’s session and two items before the committee: Service Link and a program called Children in Need of Services (CHINS). Both programs were not funded in the budget passed by the House of Representatives.

By State Senator Bob Odell

On Friday as I was driving to Concord, I listened to New Hampshire Public Radio for a few minutes as I often do as I switch between WNTK and NHPR during my morning commute.

Dan Gorenstein, a State House reporter, was telling the story of how lobbyists, not-for-profits as well as individuals are besieging the seven senators who sit on the Finance Committee.  Using interviews with Chuck Morse (Salem), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senate President Bragdon (Milford), Dan related how those who are looking for funding in the budget for the next two years for their favored agencies are chasing down finance committee members to plead their case. Continue reading

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