By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate fought the usual battles over abortion, the minimum wage, and increasing unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits, but found nearly unanimous agreement for omnibus bills on prescription drugs, health care, child protection, criminal justice and transportation infrastructure.
Meeting for the first time in three months Tuesday and for the first time since the Civil War outside its own chamber, the Senate generally avoided the partisan civil war that plagued last week’s House session.
Before the long day was over, the Senate approved nearly 200 separate bills packaged in about two dozen bills that will go to the House at the end of the month.
Many of the bills addressed aspects of the coronavirus pandemic such as long-term care and nursing home facilities, allowing pharmacists to administer a COVID-19 vaccines after one is developed, insurance parity for telemedicine, giving cities, towns and school districts flexibility for annual meetings and budgets, expanding broadband throughout the state, and allowing absentee voting for any reason.
The Senate also approved bills that would require a law enforcement officer to report misconduct by another, to prohibit police from using choke holds unless in an emergency, raise the smoking age to 21 years old, allow unmarried adults to adopt children and establish a dental benefit for adults on Medicaid.
Other bills would overhaul school disciplinary systems and increase mental health services in schools, increase child protection services, update the state’s 10-year highway improvement plan, redesign the state licensing and certification system, remove time limits for civil cases for sexual assault and incest, and require a line-by-line accounting of the $1.25 billion CARES act spending and for transfers within the Health and Human Services Department.
The Senate’s bipartisanship began with a prayer by Republican Sen. Regina Birdsell and Democratic Sen. David Watters, but quickly ended on the first bill which would require insurance companies covering maternity services to also cover emergency and elective abortion procedures.
Adopting the provision allows New Hampshire insurance companies to bypass new federal rules requiring abortion billing to be done separately from other medical procedures.
The vote was down party lines 14-10 as was increasing the minimum wage to $10 per hour next year and to $12 an hour in 2023.
The state does not have its own minimum wage and instead uses the federal threshold of $7.25 per hour.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, did what a lot of GOP senators did Tuesday, tied his opposition to the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of the state’s economy.
He said increasing the minimum wage helps some workers but adversely impacts others as employers turn to automation, robotics and more part-time jobs.
“While it is well intentioned,” Bradley said, “what we need to do is make New Hampshire the most business friendly state in the nation.”
But Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough, said the pandemic has exacerbated the differences between the haves and the have nots, noting increasing the minimum wage will help the economy much more than letting businesses save a little money.
“It’s time, honestly,” Dietsch said. “I was making more than this when I was a student in college.”
The bills now go to the House but is expected to be vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu as other minimum wage bills have been.
The Senate approved a bill that would study what happened at long term care and nursing home facilities where more than 80 percent of the COVID-19 deaths have occurred, as well as money for child care scholarships, programs for the homeless and a housing subsidy program for renters and homeowners affected by layoffs and job losses due to the pandemic.
Bradley said the issues the bill addresses have all been allotted money by Sununu with CARES Act funds. The bill would duplicate the funding, he noted.
“This bill is no longer necessary,” Bradley said, “and we should vote it down.”
But Senate Majority Leader and Democratic candidate for governor, Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said the bill is one of the most important the Senate will act on today.
He noted entire floors of nursing homes have had their residents die from COVID-19.
“Families are looking into these nursing homes hoping their relatives survive,” Feltes said. “We can’t afford not to take care of this.”
He said the money in the bill is for child care scholarships for families who cannot afford childcare
“As we reopen, working families have kids at home and they are choosing between work and childcare,” he said. “This will support our economy as it rebounds to help with childcare affordability.”
The bill passed on a 14-10 vote.
An omnibus criminal justice bill would require police officers to report misconduct by fellow officers and prevent chokeholds like the one that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The bill would also require future police officers be screened for psychological stability.
The bill also forbids the state from using private prisons to house inmates.
“The nation’s eyes are on our criminal justice system following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the subsequent protests in response,” said Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline. “The New Hampshire Legislature is working to take thoughtful, concrete steps to improve our criminal justice system including mandating that police report misconduct by fellow police officers and increasing access to psychological screening before officers assume duties.”
One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is a revolution in telemedicine that extends beyond physical health care, several senators said.
The omnibus bill requires insurers to provide parity for telemedicine and in person visits. It requires insurance companies to reimburse telemedicine services at the same rate and expand what is allowable services for telemedicine including mental health providers.
Bradley said telemedicine is one of the key reasons lawmakers had to come back and act on legislation before the end of the session.
He said the change puts the state on the forefront of its use and envisions bringing greater medical services to rural areas.
“We often see in times of war medicine advance in leaps and bounds,” said physician and Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye. “This time it is a pandemic and a virus and the use of telemedicine has been transformative.”
He called telemedicine a major revolution in the way the state does health care, and will open doors to people who did not have access to medical services.
A bill that caps co-pays for insulin and seeks to reduce the costs of prescription drugs had the unanimous support of Senators. The bill also allows wholesale drug importation from Canada, requires insurance companies to respond within two days for drugs needing prior authorization, requires insurance coverage for epinephrine auto-injectors, and prohibits price gouging.
“Every day, too many Granite Staters are forced to choose between their health and their financial security,” said Feltes. “New Hampshire’s health care costs are among the highest in the nation, causing some Granite Staters to ration or delay doses of life sustaining medications–and this crisis has only been exacerbated during the economic downturn spurred by coronavirus.”
The Senate approved an omnibus child protection bill with additional safety and health provisions, legal safeguards, and earlier intervention services.
The plan includes the content of about a dozen separate Senate and House bills that include a number of concerns raised about child abuse with school closings and stay-at-home orders, as well as long-standing issues like parental reimbursement for court-ordered services for juveniles.
“As the state reopens we will be faced with a public health crisis that has been forced to remain quiet, the protection and welfare of our children,” Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said. “For children living in abusive homes, the loss of their classroom experience, after school programs, and community centers, meant that their pathways to disclose abuse were either partially or completely eliminated.”
The bill establishes a new school disciplinary system that would use suspension or expulsion as a last resort and establishes a multi-tier system for mental and behavioral health services for students.
The bill also expands the oversight of the Office of the Child Advocate.
Bipartisan agreement was not reached on a bill that would provide greater unemployment benefits, a death benefit for families of public workers killed doing their jobs, would require the state to follow federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, increase the time firefighters would have to claim workers’ compensation for heart and lung damage, allow individual bargaining units to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements, and allow union certification when a majority of workers file written authorization.
Republicans agreed to extend death benefits to public workers, but opposed the remainder of the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the bill would increase local property taxes and stretch already reduced state resources.
“It is long past time that we put long-term benefits in place that remain after the state of emergency is lifted,” said Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester. “Our public employees have been rightfully credited for helping us all navigate through these unprecedented times; it is our responsibility to go beyond words of thanks and put policy in place that protects their health, their families, and their right to collective bargaining.”
The Senate also approved a bill that eliminates the statute of limitations to bring civil action for sexual assault or incest.
While opponents argued it was unrealistic for people to remember something that happened 40 or 50 years ago, supporters said the victims of sexual assault never forget.
They said the bill simply leaves the courthouse door open to victims.
“This bill improves education on sexual misconduct at our colleges and universities, removes statutes of limitations for sexual assault so survivors are not silenced or denied justice, and bans the sale of rape kits that sell false-hopes to survivors of sexual assault, provide no prosecutorial security, and fail to provide the comprehensive, critical care victim-survivors need and deserve,” said Hennessey.
The bill does not change the statute of limitations for criminal charges for sexual assault or incest.
The bill also removes the exception for married minors from the definition of sexual assault, increases the cap on assistance for crime victims and creates a committee to study the needs of crime victims and statutes governing crime victims’ rights.
The Senate approved a bill to extend protections to renters and homeowners who face eviction or foreclosure because they are unable to pay their rent or mortgage due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Under the bill, once the current moratorium ends, renters could not be evicted unless a landlord offers a six-month repayment package to recoup the unpaid rent.
Banks would have to act “in good faith” with homeowners who are unable to pay their mortgages.
Feltes said community banks have been doing this now, and the bill would just provide baseline protection for homeowners and renters and help to prevent the destabilization of the housing market.
The Senators agreed to allow the children of totally and permanently disabled veterans attend state colleges and universities tuition free.
The bill creates programs to aid veterans’ access to employment, entrepreneurship, housing, health care and educational assistance.
Sen. Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, “said In this legislation we assist our veterans to start businesses, find jobs and apprenticeships matching their skillset, obtain physical and mental health services, prevent suicide, achieve license and certification reciprocation, access educational opportunities for themselves and their families, and we continue the fight to end veteran homelessness.”
The Senate unanimously agreed on an omnibus bill to expand broadband access throughout the state, particularly in rural areas. The bill would allow communities to establish communications district, provide bonds to increase access, and map the current broadband map.
“Access to broadband is about more than high speed internet, it is a matter of digital equity,” stated Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene. “For our rural communities, it means access for telemedicine, the ability to work from home, and educational opportunities for students. Public funds must be used efficiently in creating public-private partnerships to bring high speed internet service to every home in New Hampshire and finally cover the last mile.”
The Senate passed a clean water bill addressing PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) contamination and drinking water safety as well as extending the Commission on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster Investigation and establishing a PFAS fund.
“Today’s vote sets clear guidelines on maximum contaminant levels based on the latest science from the NH Department of Environmental Services, provides relief to municipalities taking on remediation projects, ensures insurance coverage for PFAS blood testing, and extends the Commission on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster Investigation to allow for their continued work through June 30, 2022,” said Sen. Sherman.
The bill passed on a 23-1 vote.
The bills go back to the House to decide if they will agree with the changes the Senate made. To concur or non-concur will require only a majority vote of the House, which will likely send the bills on to the governor after the House’s June 30 session at Whittemore Center.
The Senate also will meet June 30 in Representatives Hall.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.