Capital Comments: NH’s Budget Gap Remains No. 1 Issue

By State Senator Bob Odell

The bills ran the gamut from a “ridiculous” one to the cornerstone bill of this session addressing our huge and increasing budget deficit.

The Senate adopted rules earlier this year that required us to take action on all bills by May 12.  When leadership noticed that the House rules called for them to have a similar deadline but a day later, we changed our rules so that we could add an extra day to deal with legislation. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Budget Cuts Stir Things Up in Concord

By State Senator Bob Odell

The Governor’s proposed budget cuts for the next fiscal year that starts on July 1 have stirred up things in Concord.  The spending reductions are in an amendment to Senate Bill 450.  In its original form, the SB 450 deals with costs and expenditures at the Department of Health and Human Services so it is an appropriate vehicle for the Governor’s budget changes to be made.

Every reduction in spending, of course, means some program, contract or facility is going to be cut or eliminated.  And with that will go the jobs associated with those activities.  So, lobbyists and advocates for these programs are walking the State House halls looking for support to keep them from losing money in the next year.

One proposal that has drawn attention is the elimination of state contracts for three shelters for children ordered there by district courts.  The children would be sent to the Sununu Youth Center in Manchester.  The Governor’s plan says the state will save $4 million per year.

But will we save that money?

One of the shelters which would lose its contract, the Antrim Girls Shelter, has been run by Lutheran Social Services of New England since 1988.  Although girls are sent there from around the state, the shelter is a community institution supported by many churches, donors and volunteers from the Antrim area. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Odell Suggests Wait for Gaming Commission Report

By State Senator Bob Odell

You can bet that the State Senate will vote to pass a huge gambling bill (SB 489) that has grown in scale over the more than ten years that Senator Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) has been pushing his plan.

Senator D’Allesandro and other proponents talk about job creation, new state revenues, private sector investment and money to prop up the horse racing business.  Opponents cite the social costs of casinos, the loss of jobs in the surrounding area and loss of a quality of life built on the lowest crime rate in the country and the strength of our tourism business based on our recreational and scenic amenities.

One problem some see is that we face one bill … a sort of take it all or leave it situation.  I suggest we wait for the Governor’s Commission on Gaming to issue its report on May 25 to see other options.  I serve on the 15 member Commission and it is doing very good work because of its leadership, the integrity and talent of the commission members and the money that has been raised to provide the commission with a research staff, a writer and funds for experts from around the country to travel to New Hampshire to meet with us. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Lawmakers Anticipate School Building Aid Study

Senator Bob Odell was joined by Richards School students Ethan Houde (left) and Dylan Palmer in the Senate Chamber as part of Read Across America on March 3. The annual event brings students to Concord to share a morning reading and talking about their favorite books with their senator. As part of the tradition, everyone dons Cat-in-the-Hat style hats.

Senator Molly Kelly (Keene) is the Chair of the Senate Education Committee.  And she also has been heading up a study committee on New Hampshire’s school building aid grant program.

At our last Senate session, she brought to the floor a bill (SB 486) to suspend state building aid grants to school districts for the next fiscal year beginning on July 1.  In effect, the state is going to take a time out to assess the building aid program and determine if the distribution formula should be changed.

Any school building projects approved at the local level before the end of June will be fully funded by the state based on the current formula.

The school building aid program has been very successful for over half a century.  First begun in 1955 when the student population was growing rapidly as the children of the World War II generation were entering school creating the need for new school buildings.  State aid for new buildings and renovation projects pays for a portion of the principal repayment each year on outstanding bonds.

There is general agreement that the current costs to the state are unsustainable.  The number of projects, about 25 on average each year, and the costs of projects have been increasing even as student population is declining.  In 1990, the appropriation for school building aid was $10 million.  In 2009, that figure had grown to $44 million. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Pace Picks Up for State Senate

By State Senator Bob Odell

The pace of activity in the State Senate has been gradually picking up steam.

Our last session ran five hours and we dealt with over 40 bills.  And then any Senate bill that has a fiscal note indicting it could have an impact on the budget and state spending had to be out of committee by Thursday afternoon.  That allows those bills to go to the Senate floor and if passed then be referred to the Finance Committee to assess financial implications. Continue reading

Capital Comments: Stark Reminders of a Changing World

By State Senator Bob Odell

Last week was our annual legislative break.  It gave me the opportunity for a short trip to Portland, Oregon to spend a few days with a couple of grandsons.  Those two boys, seven and five years old, certainly helped take a lawmaker’s mind pretty much away from legislative issues and the state budget.

There are, of course, many stark reminders of how the world has been changing.   How about a $25 per charge for your bag when you check in at the airport?  And if overweight, the fee could be over $100. Continue reading