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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Caution, political survival keys in Medicaid reform

Kevin Landrigan

A popular theory has been circulating that Gov. Maggie Hassan chose to veto three incremental but popularly passed bills this month to force the Senate to come back into session later this year so it can’t duck her plan to expand Medicaid.

That’s interesting, but a lesson in parliamentary maneuvers – if not political reality – should put that conspiracy theory to rest. ...

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A popular theory has been circulating that Gov. Maggie Hassan chose to veto three incremental but popularly passed bills this month to force the Senate to come back into session later this year so it can’t duck her plan to expand Medicaid.

That’s interesting, but a lesson in parliamentary maneuvers – if not political reality – should put that conspiracy theory to rest.

Let’s start with the issue of expanding Medicaid.

By definition, this sweeping change in health care policy is going to require a special session either via petition of Hassan and the Executive Council or the support from House and Senate leaders.

Simply taking up Medicaid expansion in the 2013 session would require a two-thirds vote, since we’re long past the point when a new bill could be introduced, much less heard, recommended and voted on by the body.

A special session would come with its own operating rules, and if past is prologue, those rules would require only a majority vote to introduce and later take up a new bill.

There is other circumstantial evidence that the chief roadblock to Medicaid expansion – Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford – is the last person on Hassan’s mind when it comes to these vetoes.

All three bills are House bills, and that means if the House sustains every one of Hassan’s vetoes, then the Senate wouldn’t even have to meet.

If anything, Hassan showed deference to the desires of her 11 Senate Democrats on bills, especially since when it comes to that Medicaid battle, she needs them to be united if she’s to get two Senate Republicans to break ranks and vote with her.

Otherwise, caution and political survival appears the primary motivation with all three.

Vetoing Keene Democratic Rep. Chuck Weed’s bill to study end-of-life issues was necessary, given her opposition to assisted suicide.

Why get so worked up about changing the membership of an economic development advisory council?

Well, Bedford Republican Rep. John Cebrowski’s bill not only stripped her own office of a member, it took one from organized labor along with specific seats for industries – banking, insurance, bio tech –
that are financially and politically important.

Finally, thanks to this weak form of chief executive we have, there’s nothing Hassan can do to force the Senate to come back during the balance of the year.

She does have the bully pulpit, and you can be sure once the commission issues a report on Medicaid, she’ll try to use it.

Voice issues

On Friday, Hassan allowed the first piece of legislation to become law without her signature.

During the 2012 campaign, Hassan’s GOP opponent, Ovide Lamontagne, vowed to take a stand on every bill and not permit legislation to take effect without his involvement.

This was a favorite tool of the last Republican governor, Craig Benson, who admitted publicly he thought it smarter and safer not to sign legislation if the consequences were unclear to him.

Democrat John Lynch defeated Benson in 2004, and didn’t employ it much during his first six years in office.

The numbers increased a bit during his final term, however, when Republicans controlled both branches of the Legislature with veto-proof 3-1 majorities.

The unsigned bill (HB 542) became a thorny one for Hassan, since House Deputy Speaker Naida Kaen, D-Durham, was its author and it became a handy place for a new technology to flex its political muscle.

The original bill updates standards that utility companies will have to follow in meeting further goals for the use of renewable energy.

These were carefully brokered to the satisfaction of both political parties, industries and consumer advocates alike.

The thorn was that added trinket – namely, one that will permit companies that use Voice over Internet Protocol to remain unregulated by the state Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC thought it had an informal agreement with all VoIP companies operating in the state that they wouldn’t be regulated but, still offer a basic service option so low-income consumers would be able to get it.

Landline telephone companies by PUC rule must offer this cheaper priced option to all customers.

The explosion of VoIP on cellphones has brought the big players – Comcast, Verizon Wireless, et al – into this market with both feet, and this bill expressly lets them avoid having to offer this basic service in the future.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Robert Odell, R-Lempster, offered this industry sweetener as a floor amendment last June 6, and the Senate embraced it by a voice vote that day.

Last month, Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, named her deputy to chair the House-Senate negotiating committee on this, while Bragdon named Odell to lead his team.

You get the picture: a marriage of the two bills that couldn’t be broken.

“Governor Hassan also respected and appreciated the Legislature’s intention to foster competition by choosing to remove state oversight over phone service provided by Voice over Internet Protocol and similar technologies,” communications director Marc Goldberg said.

“But lawmakers so narrowly defined the parameters of basic telephone service that the state may lose its ability to provide even minimal consumer protections for its most vulnerable and geographically isolated citizens –
especially if the federal government fails in its responsibility to them.”

Home away from home

The flap over alleged voter fraud by presidential campaign workers in both parties got personal last week, and directly linked to New Hampshire’s junior senator.

GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn fired the first shot, filing a complaint with Attorney General Joe Foster after WMUR reported eight people had voted from the home of Martha Fuller Clark, Democratic state senator and Obama New Hampshire campaign co-chairwoman, in Portsmouth.

Five of the eight were campaign workers, three voting in 2012 before moving on and two who voted in 2008 elections, as well.

The nub here is the state’s murky domicile law that allows anyone to vote on Election Day if he or she “manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence” here after the election.

Horn also asked Foster to recuse himself, since he served in the Senate with Clark.

Before taking the job, Foster said he’d recuse himself from conflicts, especially with his former law firm, but he rejected this request out of hand.

Taking himself out in this matter would mean he’d also inherently have to in every conflict with a “long list of folks, including the Senate president, the speaker, the mayor of Manchester, the mayor of Nashua and the governor,” Foster said.

Democratic Party communications director Harrell Kirstein fired back with Mitt Romney state campaign director Phil Valenziano, who left New Hampshire and now is political director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2014 campaign.

Then there’s Marian Ward, a Ron Paul and later Romney coalition staffer who lived in the Concord home owned by GOP strategist Kerry Marsh in 2012.

She moved to Arkansas in March.

GOP spokesman Ryan Williams said both staffers tried to land jobs in New Hampshire after the election and failed – Valenziano to become the state GOP executive director, Ward with Spectrum Marketing, where Marsh works.

Then it got even closer to home, as liberal Granite State Progress released an even bigger GOP list, including Brooks Kochvar, campaign manager for Kelly Ayotte’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2010.

Kochvar claimed a Manchester address, and left soon after the election for his Boise, Idaho, home, where he still lives and works for the GS Strategy Group.

Meanwhile in Concord, look for this flap to ignite GOP attempts to further tighten domicile laws next year.

Right up until June, the GOP-led state Senate tried to link domicile and voter registration to strengthen a 2012 law that notified all of those signing up to vote that they were subject to motor vehicle laws requiring a driver to register a car and apply for a license within 60 days of becoming a resident.

The Democratically led House killed that attempt, while the GOP Senate blocked a House bid to repeal the 2012 law.

The same stalemate will likely ensue next year, but that won’t stop the fireworks.

Mass. taxes boost NH

Thank you, Massachusetts.

That’s the message from New Hampshire fiscal conservatives after the Bay State Legislature overrode the state budget veto of Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick.

The move means gas and diesel taxes in that state will go up 3 cents a gallon plus, indexed for inflation, and the tobacco tax will jump $1 per pack of cigarettes.

The Massachusetts plan adds computer software services to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

“By making it more expensive to fill their tanks and to purchase tobacco products and computer services, they are creating an even greater incentive for Massachusetts residents to come over the border and buy those products here,” said Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity.

“More importantly, once these tax refugees start coming to New Hampshire for these goods, they are more likely to buy many other products here. In a competitive marketplace, one state’s pain is another state’s gain.”

Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire helped lead the fight against the state House-passed gas tax of 12 cents per gallon and the 20-cent tobacco tax hike Hassan and the Democratically controlled House had endorsed.

Timely voting

House Republican leaders were confident at week’s end that the lower House would override Hassan’s last veto, which lets local election workers begin to process absentee ballots two hours after the polls open.

Some town and city clerks and officials with the New Hampshire Municipal Association were weighing in at week’s end with emails or calls to supporters expressing the same optimism.

Right now, absentee ballots can’t begin even to be collated until 1 p.m.

There’s reason for supporters to be confident.

After all, the bill’s sponsors include House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, plus Democratic Whip Gary Richardson, of Hopkinton, brokered the final compromise.

Let’s cool that exuberance just a bit, though.

For starters, the House and Senate never cast a single recorded vote on this bill, both passing it on a voice vote, so no House Democrats went on the record.

Then there’s Hassan’s commitment that she’d work to pass a change to help local clerks make Election Day more efficient as long as it assures “transparency.”

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, played a big role in convincing Hassan a veto was the right way to go, because election observers should have notice when absentees are going to get worked on, and in her city, this bill means it could start at 8 a.m.

If the House does override the veto, Hassan needs only eight of the 11 Senate Democrats to stick with her.

Finally, a postscript on the change:

Few people know this, but it isn’t an uncommon for an absentee ballot voter to show up at the polls to cast his or her ballot in person.

Their second vote gets counted and the absentee is tossed as long as election workers haven’t started processing it.

Sure, some are absent-minded, but others no longer had a candidate.

Consider 2008, when Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd bailed out after disappointing showings in the Iowa caucuses, which came only five days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

On the GOP side, it was Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann who dropped out on Jan. 4, 2012, six days before New Hampshire’s primary and again after flaming out in the Hawkeye State.

“It’s not the best reason the governor should have vetoed this bill, but at the end of the day, this should be about making sure everyone can cast a vote that really counts on Election Day,” Soucy said.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).