Senate Debates Familiar Issues

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The Senate met Thursday in Representatives Hall in the State House.


CONCORD — Groundhog Day may have been earlier this month, but the Senate session Thursday was much like the movie, deja vu all over again.

The Senate spent nearly an hour debating two bills that would have either eliminated or significantly changed the divisive concepts provision passed last year in the budget package.

Senators also debated a bill seeking to make the cost of the Education Freedom Account program also passed in the budget package last year more visible to property taxpayers.

And once again the Senate voted down a bill to raise the minimum wage, which is the federal minimum wage, and the lowest in New England by $5 an hour.

The Senate also approved a bill that would shield the identities of donors to many kinds of charitable organizations both for social services and political groups.

Once again the Senate unanimously approved adding adult dental benefits to the state’s Medicaid program, and sent the bill to the House.

Divisive Concepts

The Senate killed two bills that would have either repealed the divisive concepts law or removed the ability to seek civil damages against a teacher or school district.

Opponents of the new law that has received national attention, said it has put educators on edge, impacting curriculum, textbooks and teachers and teachings, while trying to whitewash the nation’s racial and gender equality history.

Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, said the new law has created a burden on schools and damaged the open and free discussion of ideas in the classroom.

Watters is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 298 which would repeal the law.

He said the biggest problem with the law is the attorney general’s interpretation that states history is settled habits.

That is what makes it very difficult for educators to teach anything that could be viewed as possibly biased and that could eventually lead to the loss of teaching credentials, he said.

“Regardless of how you feel about the Republican gag rule, one thing has become abundantly clear: the law is unworkable and is causing fear and confusion for Granite Staters.” Watters said. “We owe it to the people we represent to be responsive to their concerns, and by refusing to fix problematic policy, my Republican colleagues have chosen their anti-free speech agenda over the people they represent.”

But proponents argued there is nothing in the bill to prohibit teaching the nation’s history good and bad.

Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, said the law clearly states that history is not off limits. He said the law deals with the idea “Teach don’t preach,” which he said is a problem.

Teachers should not be indoctrinating students, he said. But others said that is an issue that should be handled at the local level and not involve the state.

Watters said: “This has unleashed a host of consequences and lawsuits.”

Others said the new law is unpopular among most people.

“Our communities have told us time and time and time again the statute passed last year is not who we are as a state,” said Sen. Rebecca Whitely, D-Hopkinton. “This has created far more division in our state, not unite us.”

Others said the state has been in the national press concerning the law and noted other states with similar laws are in the south and west.

But the prime sponsor of the language of the new law, said he believes the statute is very clear and it does not prohibit teaching about slavery or racism.

“Across New Hampshire, parents are making their concerns known regarding what is being taught in their children’s classrooms as well as the positive changes they believe will make the educational experience better and more transparent. Republicans listened,” Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said. “Today, our students cannot be taught that one group of people are inherently inferior or superior by the virtue of their immutable characteristics.”

He defended the law and said public employers can still receive bias training in their workplaces and educators have the academic freedom to teach history without interference.

“By making these changes, we actually strengthened New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination laws,” Bradley said. “Attempts to turn them back are misguided. SB 298 and SB 304 would have done just that.”
Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 304, said what his bill tried to do was make the law less onerous.

“What is proposed here is to take some of the burden off the guesswork public employees and teachers in this state are facing right now,” Kahn said

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, asked his fellow senators to look at the five paintings on the wall of Representatives Hall, where the Senate was meeting to allow for social distancing. He mentioned the portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster and John P. Hale, the noted abolitionist.

“The five men on that wall did something we are attempting to turn upside down and negate it,” D’Allesandro said.

SB 298 was killed on a 13-10 vote, and SB 304 was killed on a voice vote.

EFA Transparency

The Senate also voted down a bill that would have added a new line to property tax bills, to indicate the additional property taxes a person pays due to the Education Freedom Account program.

“It is simply about transparency,” said Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 252. “We are asking local property taxpayers to foot the bill for private and religious education, they deserve to know how much is going out and how much will be needed to replace (it).”

She said program supporters say the money for the scholarship grants comes from the Education Trust Fund not from local property taxes, but she disagrees because local property taxes will have to make up for the state adequacy grant that goes with the student under the voucher program.

That is money the school district will lose, but that does not change a district’s fixed costs, like lights, heat and transportation by losing a few students, she said.

And she said the more programs that depend on the Education Trust Fund, the more that will have to be cut in other areas.

There needs to be a “level of clarity about the amount of public money spent on private institutions,” Soucy said. “Taxpayers deserve transparency on the public money diverted to private institutions.”
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, said he was involved when the Medicaid expansion program was approved, and one of the reasons it had bipartisan support was strict accountability and a circuit breaker that would shut down the program if it exceeded projected costs.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a proponent of the Education Freedom Account program, estimated few students would take advantage of the program the first year and projected costs would be $129,000. But 1,800 students qualified for the program at a cost of more than $8 million.

Sherman said the new voucher program should be held to the same standards as every other taxpayer funded program in the state, and the people paying the bills ought to be able to see the cost.

But the bill’s prime sponsor, Bradley said, “It’s simply another attempt to tear down EFA’s and all the positive changes this program has created for so many deserving students.”

He called the program very successful with 1,800 students and reiterated that it did not cost property taxpayers anything.

But others disagreed.

The bill was killed on a 13-10 vote.

Minimum Wage

The Senate once again defeated a bill to increase the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $15 over the next two years in steps.

Soucy, who has sponsored the change for many years, argued times are different this year.

“I have been fighting this fight for the New Hampshire workforce for over a decade now. But this year feels different,” Soucy said. “Our employers are struggling with a mass workforce shortage and our low-wage employees, many of whom were on the front lines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, are still struggling to make ends meet. We are living in a different world than we were even just a year ago, and it is well past time that we acknowledge the very real needs of our constituents.”

She said the biggest problem facing employers today is finding people to work, and when you consider the cost of housing, the state needs to do all it can to attract workers here.

She said a person earning the minimum wage working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks would earn about $15,000 which is well below the federal poverty level even for a family of two.

Most people earning the minimum wage also receive government assistance, Soucy told her colleagues.

Raising the minimum wage would directly impact low-wage workers, and directly reduce government spending on assistance.

She noted the legislature voted last year to phase out the interest and dividends tax which is paid mostly by the state’s most wealthy.

“How do you justify providing financial relief to the wealthiest among us,” Soucy said, “but we can’t increase the minimum wage for those at the lowest (economic) level?”

But opponents argued raising the wage would hurt the people supporters want to help, the people just entering the workforce, would reduce the number of jobs and increase the use of automation.

“Increasing the minimum wage is well intended but there are actual real world consequences, it creates winners and it also creates losers,” said Bradley, “those trying to get their first job as an entry to the workforce.”
He said at this point in time, employers have to offer more than $15 an hour to find workers.

Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, said about 11,000 people earn the minimum wage which is about 1 percent of the workforce and 21 percent of the workforce earns less than $15 an hour.

“That is not enough to live on,” Cavanaugh said, “and that is why you see workers leave New Hampshire to move to a state that pays a living wage.”
The senate voted to send Senate Bill 203 to interim study, a polite death in the second year of the two-year term because the next legislature does not have to take up the bill.

The 13-10 vote was repeated often Thursday.

Dental Benefits

The Senate on a 23-0 vote approved Senate Bill 422 which provides dental benefits to adults on Medicaid. The state has provided children dental benefits for the Medicaid program for some time.

The bill uses $19 million from a settlement agreement to pay for the program, and caps annual benefits at $1,500.

“Today we join the ranks of 35 other states who provide this dental benefit to adult Medicaid recipients,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua. “This will not only provide critical care to our adult Medicaid population, it will also save money upstream in Medicaid on other health treatments.”

Early care will save on more expensive emergency room costs, she noted.

“Dental coverage for these adults will make a huge difference in their lives. They will experience better oral health, less need for pain management prescriptions and fewer surgeries,” said Bradley. “Poor dental hygiene can also affect a person’s ability to get a job.  By removing these barriers, we will see lower overall health care costs and increase reimbursements to dentists whose participation in this program is critical.”     

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 407 which expands postpartum health care services to those on Medicaid from two months to either 10 or 12 months depending on the program.

Donation Privacy

Senate Bill 302 was approved on a 14-9 vote to prevent the state from releasing the identities of individuals who support or donate or volunteer for any 501c organization. 

Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said SB 302’s passage is timely.

“Just recently we watched this issue play out in Canada,” she said. “The names of some people who made legal, anonymous donations to truckers were revealed without their consent which led to many of them being harassed and threatened.”

She said New Hampshire has always respected privacy including the rights of people to support a cause with their money or their time and for that information to remain private if they choose.

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said people should not have people picketing their house because of a cause they donated to or have your address and other information put out over social media. 

“One push of a button and you could seriously hurt someone,” Carson said.

The Senate is on vacation next week.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

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