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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NH Governor Maggie Hassan vetoes bullying bill

Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed a bill Monday aimed at preventing bullying of state employees calling it “unworkable’’ legislation that would lead to expensive lawsuits and hinder government productivity.

“Among its most onerous provisions, this legislation defines abusive conduct in a broad and unworkable manner based on an individual employee’s subjective perception, not on an unbiased objective standard,’’ Hassan wrote in her veto message. ...

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Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed a bill Monday aimed at preventing bullying of state employees calling it “unworkable’’ legislation that would lead to expensive lawsuits and hinder government productivity.

“Among its most onerous provisions, this legislation defines abusive conduct in a broad and unworkable manner based on an individual employee’s subjective perception, not on an unbiased objective standard,’’ Hassan wrote in her veto message.

“While I know it was not the intent of its sponsors, this bill, as written, may make the most routine workplace interactions – and the human give-and-take they entail – potential causes of action.’’

A short time after the strongly-worded veto, two leading business groups praised the first-term Democrat and warned this bill could lead to the same restrictions being applied to private industry.

“Governor Hassan has made exactly the right decision for New Hampshire’s small business community and for the state’s economy,” said Bruce Berke, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

“Signing the bill would have been the easy thing to do. She did the right thing instead and that’s great to see in politics these days.” Jim Roche, president of the Business & Industry Association, said endorsing this state law would have made similar restrictions on the private sector the “next logical target.’’

The head of the largest union for state workers condemned Hassan’s move and accused Hassan of offering only words and not actions to shield employees from coercion and intimidation by supervisors or coworkers.

“As much as she didn’t like the bill, she hasn’t offered anything in the alternative,’’ State Employees Association President Diana Lacey said during a telephone interview.

“We feel like there has been a lot of dragging of the feet from the governor, a lot of lip service to our concerns with no concrete actions to protect employees.’’

Nashua Democratic state Reps. Janice Schmidt and Sylvia Gale co-authored the original 2013 bill the House of Representatives adopted on a voice vote last January.

Hassan blamed the Republican-led State Senate for taking a consensus product the House worked on and made it more difficult for agencies to comply with and more open to frivolous complaints.

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, authored those changes which nonetheless won bipartisan support and cleared the Senate on a voice vote without any dissent.

Carson could not be reached for comment.

But Rep. Andrew White, D-Lebanon, said the final compromise had broad, bipartisan backing and he vowed to lead the fight to override Hassan’s veto.

“I guess I am really disappointed the governor would veto something that is so important to the lives of 10,000 state employees without some alternative in place,’’ White said.

“She has been willing to tell us the bad things about this bill but hasn’t given the Legislature or state employees anything to improve a real systemic problem.’’

Lacey said she also lobbied Hassan to at least sign an executive order on bullying in the workplace that could have covered “90 percent’’ of what a law would.

Hassan said soon after taking office in January 2013, she ordered training initiative be deployed throughout state government about maintaining a civil work environment.

“Every state employee should work in a safe and respectful environment and I remain willing to work with our employees to move forward to build on and improve on these efforts,’’ Hassan wrote.

“This legislation, however, does not accomplish that goal. It would create an expensive and likely litigious system; would incite conflicts between co-workers; and would make it difficult for supervisors to reasonably and fairly manage employees, making state government less efficient and effective.’’

Hassan’s training amounts to little more than a PowerPoint shown to all state workers and that hasn’t reduced complaints of harassment and intimidation, SEA President Lacey said.

Rep. White said these complaints were not due to past budget cuts that reduced the work force or to the actions an isolated number of bad supervisors.

“I think it’s a culture problem and think it’s one that has to be addressed from the top down,’’ White said.

State agency heads, however, were united with business groups in opposition as they signed a joint letter presented before the House and Senate each had approved their versions of the bill.

White said Hassan’s office at the 11th hour in late May submitted to House and Senate negotiators proposed changes, but they did not give employees enough protections.

“I think an override of the veto is entirely possible and I will be leading the charge to do that and offer something meaningful for state employees,’’ White added.

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