There are very clear signs when it is a big day in the State Senate...
An early signal is a staff member who tells you observers are already taking seats in the Senate’s public gallery an hour or more before the scheduled session. Another is the unfamiliar state troopers. They are in there in addition to the two who are on regular assignment in the State House. And last week there was an unusually large press contingent including a reporter from The New York Times and many TV cameras to record the historic day.
While there were only 23 bills on the Senate calendar, five were very controversial and so the Senate began in the morning leaving the entire day for our debates and voting. Bills that had come from policy committees with no disagreements were quickly moved along including a resolution recognizing the historic milestone represented by the New Hampshire Senate being the first legislative body in the United States with women as a majority of its members.
And then it was down to issues on which both sides hold intense, passionate, heartfelt and sincere feelings. The action began before noon on the bill (HB 648) that would allow use of marijuana for medical purposes. Law enforcement, including the Attorney General and nine of the 10 county attorneys, oppose the bill. Proponents feel that individuals with very serious illnesses should have access to marijuana if it helps them deal with their illnesses. The bill passed 14-10 and if differences between the House and Senate versions can be worked out it will go to the Governor for signature.
The transgender non-discrimination bill (HB 415) which became the “bathroom bill” was killed by a 24-0 roll call vote. But the vote followed two speeches attacking the press as well as those who opposed the bill based upon implications of access to public bathrooms.
Next up was the same-sex marriage bill (HB 436). There were two votes including one on a controversial amendment that came in late. All the issues have been aired for weeks and Senators have been inundated by emails from New Hampshire and around the country. When the debate was done, a roll call was requested, the cameras were rolling and the press was attentive to their computers and writing pads. It was over fast. The vote was 13-11 for legalization of same sex marriage. Most of the press packed up their gear and quickly headed out as many in the gallery departed, too … some happy and some disappointed. That is the way of the legislative process.
The repeal of the death penalty bill (HB 556) found a 13-11 roll call vote to table it. A similar 13-11 vote put the mandatory seat belt bill (HB 383) on the table, too. There were not enough votes to pass either one. I heard some comments on the radio that they would be taken off the table at a future Senate session. That will only happen, in my opinion, if two votes against these are changed to “for” votes. And that is not likely.
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Just before the five controversial bills came to the Senate floor, there were voice votes to pass HB 301 which establishes a task force to study access to dental care and HB 414 which sets up a commission to study the prevention of dental disease among New Hampshire’s children.
The bills reflect the importance of addressing oral health issues especially for children where families have no insurance and cannot afford care. Some Sullivan County communities, for example, have some of the highest rates of untreated cavities for children in the state. In one community it is 45% of all children, and 30% in another, compared to 21.7% state-wide. About 27% of adults in the county lack dental health insurance coverage. And the percentage of children without similar insurance is about 20%. In rural America, even those with means and dental insurance are part of the dental dilemma; they too have limited access to dental care.
While the legislature studies dental care this summer, Community Dental Care of Claremont will open in downtown Claremont this summer. Since 2005, a group of volunteers working through the Sullivan County Oral Health Collaborative developed a plan for the dental center. Recognizing that poor dental health has a negative effect on one’s ability to get a job and causes increased absenteeism in school and at work, the new center will take the first important step to fill a void and increase access to dental care for all ages and all economic situations in Sullivan County. The dental center will be accessible to a wide range of citizens and will accept Healthy Kids and private sector insurance. A sliding payment schedule will be available. As a non-profit, the more successful the center, the more treatment will be available for those in need.
The volunteers who have made the dental center a reality deserve credit for following the proven model of Dental Health Works in Keene. And they have successfully cobbled together money from the Endowment for Health and community development block grants. Thoughtful business leaders, too, have come through by directing some of their state tax dollars to the dental center. The final tax credit commitment came through last week helping the volunteers reach their financial commitment to a key grant making entity. While the legislature sees the need to assess dental care, the Sullivan County Oral Health Collaborative is much further along. In just a couple of months our new dental center actually will be delivering care to local residents.
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