Over the next three weeks, the Senate will deal with some of the more controversial issues of the session as we work toward "cross over" day. That will be March 31 when all bills that were introduced by Senators have to be voted on. Similarly, all bills introduced by House members, including their budget plan for the next biennium, must be voted on by the Representatives.
Most of the bills that have come to the Senate floor have unanimous recommendations coming out of the committees that held hearings on them. Others come with just one dissenting vote in the committee. That was the case last Wednesday with Senate Bill 148 which deals with the national Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, the new health care plan advanced by President Obama.
SB 148 provides that a resident of New Hampshire would not be required to obtain, or be assessed a fine for failure to obtain health insurance coverage. It also says the Attorney General should join other state Attorneys General in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new national health care plan.
The five Democrat Senators were opposed to the bill for a variety of reasons. All Republican Senators except me voted for the bill. While I do not believe individuals should be mandated to purchase health insurance, the idea of telling the Attorney General what he should or should not do violates principles underlying the fundamental concept of having three separate but equal branches of government. And of all members of the executive branch, everyone should be concerned about the independence of the Attorney General.
Our federal and state governments have been successful over more than two centuries because of the important structure our founders put in place through our constitutions. The separation of powers combined with the value of an independent state chief law enforcement officer, the Attorney General, needs to be sustained.
The Senate voted on nearly 50 bills last week. The most significant bill (SB 183) changes the education funding formula that will be, if passed by the House and signed by the Governor, in place for the next two school years. It essentially flat-funds the state contribution to local school districts. At a time when cuts in state expenditures are the standard, level funding for education may be the best anyone could expect.
The cost to the state each year will be $578 million. When the statewide property tax of $363 million is included, it means the state will spend $941 million in each of the next two years on education funding. That is just over 40 percent of the state’s annual general and education trust fund budget.
In years past, there was much debate and attempts to amend education appropriation bills on the Senate floor. This year, the well crafted SB 183 sailed through with only caution warnings coming from members of the minority. There was not even a request for a roll call vote as the new funding plan was passed on a voice vote.
One tax created in the last budget is going away. That is the 10 percent tax on gambling winnings. Testimony was presented that the tax has discouraged Massachusetts residents from buying lottery tickets in New Hampshire and sent those who gamble by telephone to others states and away from our businesses here. Projected revenue for fiscal year 2011 ending on June 30 is only $3.4 million.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 130 to repeal the tax on a voice vote. Governor Lynch supports the repeal and a similar bill has been worked through the House.
The bill to exempt the Unity school district from the moratorium on school building aid has had unanimous votes of support in the Senate Finance and the Senate Education Committees. And it passed the Senate on the basis of the policy involved and it was back on the Senate floor with an "ought to pass" recommendation from the Senate Finance Committee. By prior agreement with the Finance Committee, the bill was put "on the table."
While Senators can request that a bill come off the table and be voted on by the Senate, it is more likely that bills going on the table stay on the table. In this case, the chair of the Finance Committee, Senator Chuck Morse (Salem), plans to put the language of the bill into the Senate’s budget plan.
Legislation outside of the budget bills, House Bills 1 and 2, that spend money are referred to as "legislative specials." In order to control spending and keep all appropriations in the budget bills, Senator Morse, like some of his predecessors before him, has requested that the Senate vote on the bills but then put them on the table. For those appropriations in tabled bills that the Senate favors, the Finance Committee will put them into the Senate’s version of the budget.
With all the national attention on the battles over labor legislation in Wisconsin, more citizens in Senate District 8 may be interested in being at the meeting of New Hampshire labor leaders and area union members with me on March 22 at the Earl Bourdon Center in Claremont at 7:00 p.m. While this is an opportunity for labor unions to meet with me, I consider it a meeting open to others interested in New Hampshire labor issues.
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