Legislative Action Alert
Week of June 6, 2011
When Middle Ground Doesnt Exist
Late last week an area newspaper carried an editorial titled The Right Place is in the Middle. The point was this right-leaning paper was in agreement with the left-leaning Boston Globe that there should be compromise, a meeting in the middle (more to the right of the middle according to the editorial) over the national budget the perfect spot was somewhere between Rep. Paul Ryans plan and that supported by the Obama administration.
The editorial echoed other recent articles and letters to the editor suggesting the public wants negotiation and compromise, it wants civility in discourse and it wants to see those who represent us working together. Ideas of finding the middle ground have been on my mind a great deal lately.
As a former elected official I believed compromise could be a path to better outcomes. While I may have fallen short of always meeting others halfway, I nonetheless fully embraced the notion that negotiation and compromise were admirable approaches to governance. I believed what I believed most folks believe. And, I believe that most folks do, indeed, believe that.
The current chasm in policy arguments is causing me to rethink this. I find myself repeatedly coming back to one central question: Is it possible to find middle ground between a myth or lie and fact? Is it possible, for example, to find an consensus view of our nations history between Sarah Palins distortion of Paul Reveres ride and the historical account that even Revere himself conveyed to the ages? Is it possible to find negotiated solutions to climate change between those who dont believe it is occurring at all and the overwhelming majority of the worlds credible scientists who say our climate is changing in dangerous ways propelled, at least in part, by human activity? Is it possible to find meaningful economic solutions between those who adhere to the thoroughly debunked idea of supply side economics and those who subscribe to almost any other supportable economic theory?
A case in point of an adherence to a baseless ideology is the story of Arizona (a state that just so happens to have the highest number of legislators who have signed the Grover Norquist pledge explained in an earlier issue of the Alert). Since 1992 Arizona has cut more than 45 individual taxes and fees. In the current year, the Arizona legislature once again passed a package of tax cuts that will trim an additional $538 million from state coffers despite running a deficit in excess of $3 billion.
The particularly interesting thing about Arizona lawmakers unflagging march toward yet still lower taxes is that every single time they have instituted a tax cut they have used the exact same mantra that businesses will now be able to create new high paying jobs and grow the economy. The actual factual results: Arizona is 48th in job creation, it has lost 300,000+ jobs since the beginning of the recession, has some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country while continuously shifting the tax burden to local property taxpayers and away from businesses (this will have a very familiar ring in New Hampshire soon), and has sold off most of its state assets including its state Capitol which it must now lease back ultimately costing the state far more. Add to those pieces of data that 18.9 percent of Arizonas citizens lack health insurance and more than a quarter of a million children in the state do not have coverage.
Arizona is a microcosm of what is happening on a national level and in state after state currently. It has served as a laboratory for the fullest experiment of supply side economics we have seen in this country. On every single measure the evidence is clear and compelling that the policy is an abysmal failure. Certainly the notion that repeatedly cutting taxes produces high paying jobs and grows the economy has been utterly discredited. How does one find middle ground when one side of the debate is grounded in a false premise?
The problem closer to home in New Hampshire goes even deeper. The argument proffered by the Free State/Tea Party faction with increasingly more influence over the Republican side of the aisle is that government is largely unnecessary save for the protection of life, liberty and property interpreted in the narrowest possible way. How do we find workable middle ground solutions to challenges in education when one side begins with the position that public education is unnecessary? How do we find negotiated consumer protections when one side argues that the very market from which certain harms arise will self-correct if, and thats a big if, it does at all it will only do so after significant harm has befallen some group(s) of consumers.
One conclusion that I have drawn from these considerations is that folks may say they want compromise and negotiation but they most assuredly dont want halfway solutions. We all really want sound solutions, solutions that produce real, measurable results, to the problems we face. We often make the assumption that these are more likely from compromise. In truth, that can only happen if both sides begin with evidence-based positions/approaches and negotiate from there. There really isnt a viable mid-point between a lie and a truth, between a myth and a fact.
Late Breaking News
As the Alert was being readied for distribution today (Thursday, June 9) the first Committee of Conference on the biennial budget met. While the policy decisions underscoring the budget have yet to be hammered out, arguably the most important decision was made this afternoon. House and Senate conferees agreed that they would spend $24 million less than the Senate used in revenue estimates.
You may recall that there was a difference of $75 million between the Houses utterly draconian budget and the Senates merely really painful budget that was itself $244 million less than the Governors proposed budget. It now appears that the difference between the two chambers will be $51 million and there will be more cuts coming.
The budget conferees have from now until Thursday, June 16 to come to agreement on where the revenues they have agreed to will be spent. There was considerable difference between the two chambers on priorities within the budget with the Senate clearly directing more funding to Health and Human Service programs for persons with mental illness and persons with developmental disabilities. The next schedule meeting of the CoC on the budget is Sunday, June 12 at 1 p.m. in Rm 210/211 of the LOB (Legislative Office Building) .
The Week in Brief
The deadline of June 23, the final day for any legislative action on all Committee of Conference reports, looms ahead for the legislature. Among the highest profile and important pieces of legislation going into the CoC process is the biennial budget. Negotiations on the budget began this week. There is no indication at present how much time may be needed to resolve the differences between the House and Senate over the budget.
Schedule of Committees of Conference a Mystery:
Tracking Committees of Conference may be far more difficult than is typically the case. Despite having there being a rule that CoCs must be given a 24 hour notice in order to allow interested parties to attend these public discussions, there have already been CoCs held at the same time that notice was provided about there being a committee meeting. So much for that transparency thing.
Granite State Progress, a multi-issue progressive advocacy group, located in Concord, NH issued the following bulletin on Thursday of this week:
An urgent alert to everyone that there are several committees of conference meeting today with NO PRIOR NOTICE.
If you are following a COC, do not rely on the online posting or the postings in the Clerk's office -- there was a committee that started at 1:00 pm today -- the exact same time it was posted. Please call friendly legislators and find out whether your conference is meeting. For those following the Budget, there is a 2:00 pm coc.
Granite State Progress has spoken to several lawyers in the last hour. We are seeking to file an injunction since law clearly states 24 hours notice is needed. It is unclear whether Democratic members of the committees were informed prior; it is abundantely clear that advocacy groups and consumers have had no prior notice.
IF ONE OF THE COMMITTEES YOU ARE FOLLOWING DID A LAST-MINUTE MEETING, PLEASE CONTACT US. We will be seeking specific examples in addition to the physical evidence we have - time-stamped print outs of the online postings and mid-morning pictures from the Clerk's Wall. Please copy both zandra@granitestateprogress and firstname.lastname@example.org on the example. Thank you so much.
Although it cannot be trusted to list all CoCs that have been scheduled there is a legislative website listing scheduled CoCs (at least those they dont mind your knowing about in advance). The schedule can be found at http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/committee_of_conference/cofc.asp
Vote on Right to Work More of a Mystery:
For the third week in a row NH House Speaker Bill OBrien refused to call a vote on the infamous HB 474, Right to Work Act. Following the Governors veto of this bill that has been discussed on several occasions in the Alert, the House has included it in the House calendar as a possibility to be taken up. Each week has come and gone without the Speaker doing so and despite several calls from fellow legislators to put it to a vote. The Speaker has from now until December 31 of this year to hold that vote and many fear that he will pick a time when those supporting the veto are outnumbered by the two-thirds required to overturn the veto.
In the mean time rumors abound about relentless strong arm tactics used to encourage legislators to change their vote or to take a walk. This week, according to sources, House leadership stooped so low as to use the death of former Governor Walter Peterson. Following the demise of this universally admired statesman, a number of legislators claimed House leadership suggested they simply say they attended the Governors funeral and could not attend Wednesdays House session. That did not happen, but it certainly showed the lengths leadership is willing to go meet their agenda. Shame or embarrassment seems to be an utterly emotional ability among these folks.
The Roads End for Select Legislation??
Over the next three weeks the legislature will wrap up its work and legislation not retained, re-referred to committee or tabled will head to the Governors desk. Once a bill reaches his desk, Governor Lynch has the option of signing it, vetoing the bill or allowing it to become law without his signature. As we have seen with HB 474, the Right to Work Act, that process has already begun. Below are is an overview of the disposition of some of the bills that we have followed and reported on in the Alert. In cases of vetoes, of course, we may not know the epilogue until much later in the year.
Will New Hampshire Keep Its Own Minimum Wage?
Despite the fact that the minimum wage was originally championed by at least two well-regarded Republican governors and despite the fact New Hampshire has had its own minimum wage since 1949, both the House and Senate resoundingly passed a bill that repealed New Hampshires minimum wage. That legislation has now reached the Governor who swiftly vetoed it. Unfortunately for our workers and for the traditions of our state, HB 133 repealing the minimum wage passed both the House and Senate by veto-proof majorities (239-106 in the House; 19-5 in the Senate). There is little reason to believe that this bill wont make its way into law.
Is RGGI In or Out?
In the tortuous manner that some legislation makes its way through the pipeline of the legislature, there is now a bill on the way to Governors desk that would repeal New Hampshires participation in the regional greenhouse gas initiative. Its not the bill that started out to do this, but it accomplishes the goal nonetheless. You may recall the Alert tracking HB 519 that started out to repeal RGGI. The House passed that bill with a veto-proof majority. Once it reached the Senate, that body rewrote the whole bill retaining the program and changing the way that it functioned as well tied its fate to any state that decided to leave the program. The Senates action sent the House into a snit leading that chamber to replace the original of language of HB 519 onto SB 154 an important bill to the Senate containing changes to the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act.
I hope youre still with me here because the trail of these two policy positions further winds its way along. The Senate clearly signaled its intent to retain the RGGI program, but it really wanted its changes to the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act. So, it did several things to accomplish its goals. First, it tucked the language of SB 154 on the CSP into HB 2 the narrative of the budget bill. As added insurance that it would get its changes to the CSP, the Senate went ahead and concurred with the House amended SB 154 even though that bill now contained the repeal of RGGI.
The Governor has indicated that he will veto SB 154 when it reaches him in the next few days. The fate of this legislation containing two major policy matters is unknown. The House passed the original repeal of RGGI with a veto-proof majority so presumably it has the votes to override a veto. The Senate, on the other hand, has sent a clear message that it wants to retain the program. The hope, then, is that the Senate will sustain the veto. Did you follow all that??
Expansion of Death Penalty:
New Hampshire is likely to soon have an expanded use of the death penalty. HB 147 was a priority bill for speaker OBrien who has already dubbed it the Kimberly Cate Bill after the mother murdered in his home town of Temple. Under the House version of HB 147 the death penalty could be invoked for murder committed during a home invasion. The Senate amended the bill to extend the use of the death penalty to murder committed wherever a person was entitled to be.
The Governor signaled his intent to sign the bill in its original language as passed by the House. Despite changes made by the Senate it is still widely anticipated that it will receive his signature.
Turns Out Senate Has Its Own Drama
Talk to political observers over this legislative term and invariably the discussion would turn to whether the Senate was ideologically aligned with the House. Veteran Statehouse players consistently ruminated over whether the NH Senate would be more disciplined than its sister chamber. The use of the term discipline here refers to whether the most important goal for Senators was to be re-electable and re-elected over and above even their core ideology. Being ideologically pure is not always the best prescription for being re-elected as federal officeholders who signed onto killing the popular Medicare program are finding.
The jury is still out on this issue relative to the NH Senate. There are, however, some early indications that it may be difficult for those with extreme views to contain themselves and follow along with the goals of leadership in the Senate. Last week, for instance, a group referred to by Statehouse watchers as the Sanborn Caucus (named for Senator Andy Sanborn of District 7) created quite a stir for the larger Republican caucus.
According to several sources, shortly before the vote on the Senates budget was set to take place, the Sanborn Caucus informed Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley that they would not vote for the budget unless another billion dollars was lopped off. Word has it that it was immaterial to this crew where the billion dollars might come from, they just wanted that amount cut willy nilly from the bottom line. It is worth noting that several of these elected officials campaigned for office saying they would take a scalpel to the budget not an axe. Clipping 10% off the biennial state budget that is already trimmed by at least 5% which by itself fails to meet the needs of the state seems pretty much like an axe or a machete or a buzz saw. In addition to Sanborn, the purported members who meet regularly in this caucus include Sen. Jim Forsythe of District 4, Sen. Fenton Groen of District 6 and Sen. Raymond White of District 9 (for a list of communities comprising each district please click this link).
You might consider reaching out and asking these axe-wielders what else they want to cut in a budget that currently downshifts more than $100 million to local communities, leaves our elderly behind, lays off more than 400 public employees, hits our hospitals with an unexpected $115 million in new taxes and another $135 million loss of Medicaid funds to name a few impacts. Ask for specifics and if you cant get specifics, question just how serious and thoughtful a representative he is for you and for New Hampshire.
Additional fissures of the Senate majority were evident on the vote to reduce the high school drop-out age. The bill that would allow students to drop out at age 16 rather than the current 18 years of age is strictly ideological and is thoroughly unpopular with the general public in New Hampshire. Even the most conservative newspapers in the state advocated against this regressive measure that flies in the face of New Hampshires recent achievement as second in the nation for low drop-out rates. Ignoring the outcry against this bill and voting against the recommendation of the Senate Education Committee to kill the bill was the Sanborn coalition of Sens. Sanborn, Forsythe, Groen and White as well as Sen. Sharon Carson of District 14 and Sen. Jim Luther of District 12. If theyre willing to lop a billion dollars off the budget it probably makes sense to them to encourage as many students as possible to exit early and reduce the burden of educating them you suppose??