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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Senate rejects several bills aimed at restricting abortions

CONCORD – The state Senate, in a crushing blow to New Hampshire’s anti-abortion movement, rejected bills that would put the local Planned Parenthood effectively out of business, banned abortions after 20 weeks and required women to wait 24 hours before having the procedure.

The only substantial anti-abortion measure clearing the Senate on Wednesday would outlaw late-term or so-called partial-birth abortions, which have already been banned by federal law.

In response hours later, the House of Representatives attached the waiting-period bill to an unrelated business tax credit measure, SB 295, and then blocked final passage of six otherwise noncontroversial Senate bills.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said the moves weren’t about revenge, but about the House making sure its bills get the same fair treatment in the Senate as Senate plans get in the House.

“Legislation is a two-way street in a bicameral body,” O’Brien said. “Each has to listen to the other. One can’t say we don’t have enough time to listen or don’t care to listen.”

O’Brien said lawmakers and constituents have complained to him that the priority bills of many House members have received dismissive treatment in the Senate.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, said the dispute would put incentives for the economy at risk, such as the doubling of an R&D tax credit that has the backing of Gov. John Lynch.

“Anyone suggesting that this is retribution or retaliation for something is just not the case,” Bettencourt said.

Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, successfully moved to block the six Senate bills.

“We need put pressure on the Senate to prioritize our bills,” Lambert said. “The Senate needs to know the will of our House needs to be respected by the Senate.”

Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, and Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, accused the House of playing “political games” with much-needed jobs legislation in a statement.

“At a time when we should be focused on helping New Hampshire employers and supporting hardworking families, the House’s actions today will ensure the defeat of critical legislative initiatives,” the statement said.

“We are appalled the House has chosen to play political games with legislation widely recognized as being important to the state’s economy and job creation.”

With a 19-5 Republican majority, those seeking more legal restrictions to abortion expected to make some policy headway in the Senate during this election-year session.

But time and again Wednesday, the Senate membership either killed or used parliamentary maneuvers to permanently sideline the anti-abortion proposals, twice over Bragdon’s opposition.

The two Republican senators representing Nashua – Gary Lambert, of Nashua, and Jim Luther, of Hollis – joined Bragdon on the losing end, as they, too, voted for the waiting period and to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

The most controversial of this group of bills, HB 228, would have outlawed public financing to any group that “directly or indirectly” supports abortions and was aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood.

Federal court judges in two other states have judged similar laws to be unconstitutional.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas said this jeopardize $1.3 billion in federal Medicaid support even after Gary Lambert had it amended to exempt hospitals.

Bragdon said during a closed-door Republican caucus on Tuesday that Bradley raised a red flag that the bill could hurt the state’s chances of getting a Medicaid waiver to put managed care in place for its 110,000 clients.

“There were a lot of good questions and concerns raised, and the Senate as a whole thought this was not the right time to act or the right bill to adopt,” Bragdon said during an interview.

The Senate voted 17-6 to put the bill on the table, where Bragdon predicted it will remain until the close of the 2012 session, when it will officially die.

Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, authored the waiting-period bill, known as the Women’s Right to Know Act, HB 1659, to have New Hampshire join 30 states with some cooling-off period before women could get an abortion.

Sen. Ray White, R-Merrimack, said abortion is such a fateful decision, all women should have some time to consider all the consequences.

“This is an irreversible decision,” White said. “I do think this does make sense so there isn’t the regret that can last a lifetime.”

Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, said this would be the first restriction placed on a medical procedure in any state law and belittles how women already weigh all options before having an abortion.

“We are capable of making good decisions for ourselves,” Kelly said. “We not only have brains, but hearts, as well. It is time to trust women and trust their personal, private decisions.”

The bill died on a 12-11 vote in part because Sen. Tom DeBlois, R-Manchester, a staunch abortion opponent, was absent Wednesday.

Planned Parenthood policy director Jennifer Frizzell praised the Senate’s action.

“The actions of the New Hampshire Senate … bring to a halt the comprehensive anti-women’s health agenda that was pushed by Speaker Bill O’Brien and New Hampshire House leadership,” Frizzell said in a statement.

Debate over the 20-week ban became emotional, with Sen. Fenton Groen, R-Rochester, coming close to tears while recalling an ultrasound picture of what would become his most recently born grandson.

“This was not just tissue,” Groen said. “This was a little baby that looked like my son at 14 weeks.”

The Senate voted 15-8 to send the bill to study, effectively killing it for the 2012 session.

All 18 Senate Republicans present voted for banning late-term abortions and all five Senate Democrats opposed it.

Cornerstone Action, a socially conservative group, ignored all its defeats and instead harped on this largely symbolic achievement.

“The passage of a ban on partial-birth abortion opens a new chapter in advancing the life issues in New Hampshire,” said Ellen Kolb, Cornerstone’s lobbyist. “Despite Senator Kelly’s claim that abortion-related debate was ‘resolved a long time ago,’ thousands of New Hampshire residents know better.”

The margin of the vote makes it likely the bill will become law even if Lynch, an abortion rights advocate, vetoes it.

Last year, the GOP-led Legislature pushed a mandate into law over a Lynch veto that minor girls must have to notify at least one parent before they can get an abortion.

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