Capital Comments: NH Senate Okays Healthcare Commission

By State Senator Bob Odell

The work of the legislature is at a mid-point.  Last week was “cross over” and both houses worked through the final bills they wanted to pass along to the other body.

Senators put in a twelve-hour session last Wednesday in order to avoid coming back for a second day.  A twelve-hour day, of course, includes a break for lunch and a break for dinner.

And the long day includes pre-session caucuses and meetings between leaders of each party that delayed the start of the session for an hour and a half.  Then, there were the periodic recesses that stopped business on the floor.   The party calling for the recess goes into an anteroom so Senators cam meet; the Senators from the other party crowd into a corner of the chamber for their discussions.  Some recesses are just a couple of minutes while  others can take much longer.

In spite of frequent recesses and time for meals, the Senate did a good bit of work last week.

The cost of health care including health care insurance took up much of the Senate’s time.  While President Barack Obama had signed the new national health care program the day before the Senate session, Senators were focused on Senator Maggie Hassan’s (Exeter) initiative to try to reduce health care costs in New Hampshire.  Her bill, SB 505, originally would have created a state oversight commission, patterned after a similar commission that has been in operation for a number of years in Maryland that operates like our Public Utilities Commission.

Initially, there was a firestorm of negative reaction.  Stakeholders fought back and in the end the legislation passed last week creates a commission to only study options for the state to try to hold down the continuing double-digit increases in health care insurance.

One statistic presented by Senator Hassan is that while personal income in New Hampshire rose 21 percent over a decade the costs of health care insurance rose 91 percent.  And within our state, one procedure at a hospital can be twice the cost at another hospital.

That underlies the serious concern many of us have that longer term the annual growth in health care costs including insurance is not sustainable.  Everyone agrees with the seriousness of the problem.  After assuring the minority members of the Senate that she would work with them to have minority party members of the commission and would seek to identify private money instead of state money to fund the commission, Senator Hassan’s bill passed on 24 to zero roll call vote.

Of interest to business owners, the Senate passed a bill (SB 497) to repeal the so-called ” llc tax” that was a late night addition to the budget last June that applies the interest and dividend tax to some distributions to limited liability company owners.  The bill also clarifies and gives some options to business owners, partners and investors as to how much of their profits can be taken as reasonable compensation before business profits taxes must be paid.  These guidelines should also reduce the number of audits needed by the Department of Revenue Administration.

Senator D’Allesandro (Manchester) is the prime sponsor of the legislation with a bipartisan group of legislators including myself as a co-sponsors.  We have spent many hours in meetings with DRA officials and legal and accounting professionals trying to determine the impact of these changes on state revenues.  That will be an important issue when House and Senate conferees meet to iron out differences between the House and Senate positions on the bill.

That committee of conference will be closely watched by business trade groups, individual business owners and government officials.  Thankfully, the committee of conference will be publicly noticed with plenty of chairs for the many stakeholders and will be held in the light of day in May.  That is the way government is supposed to work.

The only major expanded gambling bill for 2010, as predicated, sailed through the Senate on a 14-10 bipartisan vote.  There were members of both parties in support and in opposition.

Given the fact that this same bill, although bigger in scope each time, has been before the Senate for years, the speeches were limited both in number and length.

Each bill that has implications for the state’s finances has a fiscal note attached to it.  They are usually brief, a couple of paragraphs possibly, but the one on the gambling bill (SB 489) was 25 pages long.  Senator Janeway (Webster) who had a long career was in the investment business dissected the fiscal note.

The fiscal note projects revenue from the proposed six casinos at $1.836 billion with a return to New Hampshire based on a tax of 39%.  But compare that with the testimony from the experts brought in by those designated in the legislation to get licenses.  They projected at a public hearing held last month that the state would receive about half of what is in the fiscal note.  Some advocate taking anything we can get for the state but others suggest the revenue being promised seems to drop at each juncture.  Senators now eagerly await House action.

The weekend was a good time for legislators to catch their breath.  We’ll be back at it this week with public hearings on new bills that have “crossed over.”

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