While the House will meet twice between Labor Day and January, the Senate will have met just once by the time we ring in the New Year. But the legislative process quietly lumbers along pretty much out of earshot or eyesight.
There are study committees, oversight commissions and work sessions for committees to resolve issues on bills held over from the spring. Soon Senators will be able to file new bills for a couple of weeks that will jumpstart the 2012 legislative session. Meanwhile, the House jumped into the fray earlier than any other time since I have been in the legislature by opening and closing its window for introduction of bills by its members in June.
Part of the lumbering legislative process is the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. It usually meets once a month to a packed hearing room filled with lobbyists and officials from departments with business before the committee. The book with the agenda and information on each item to be taken up is given to committee members a couple of days before the meeting.
The five House members (four Republicans and one Democrat) meet to review each item. The Senate members do the same. This means the House and Senate agree on their positions rather than having a partisan division on the committee. On controversial issues, there is typically a "House position" and a "Senate position."
And then there are items where individual legislators divide on an issue. Last Friday one issue dealt with the acceptance of a $192,000 grant to the Fish and Game Department from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The department had won a nationally competitive grant "to conserve Blanding’s turtles and associated wetland species" and was seeking Fiscal Committee approve to accept and spend the money.
At first glance you might say, "no problem." But that was not the case. Senator Chuck Morse (Salem) asked if we should be spending $200,000 when there are other critical needs that should be addressed. Good question, except that the federal money is specific to the purposes for which the grant was made and that if we turned the money back it would be awarded to another state.
Blanding’s turtles are considered endangered in New Hampshire but not federally. For land management and sound development, Glenn Normandeau, the executive director of Fish and Game, suggested we should do everything we can to avoid having Blanding’s turtles end up on the federal endangered species list.
A motion to table failed on a four to six vote and was quickly approved by the same margin. The overriding issue, of course, is whether or not we accept funds that our state and federal officials secure for our state. It is an enduring question about our interrelationship between the state and federal governments.
Legislators get very frustrated when the governmental bureaucracy and its outside vendors fail to get their job done. For six years, the Department of Health and Human Resources has been struggling to complete work on a Medicaid Management Information System Reports (MMIS) program.
Over and over again, the department has reported delays in completing its work by its contractor, ACS. This is a $61 million major information system and is critical to managing our Medicaid program which costs the state $800 million annually with well over 100,000 people served. With the new federal health care law, the number of beneficiaries could increase by 50,000 in 2014.
Senator Morse, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, put into the budget a requirement that an outside contractor be brought in to evaluate progress on MMIS. The required report from the contractor based on the budget bills … now the law of New Hampshire … is due by October 1.
The Department of Information Technology asked the Fiscal Committee on Friday to delay the reporting requirement until December 31. The primary reason is that no contractor had bid on the work. That says something about the challenges involved.
Senator Morse responded with a stern statement that ended with a request that the Attorney General meet with the general counsel of ACS and report back to the committee by October 28, the committee’s next meeting date.
The committee tabled the motion for an extension and voted to adopt Senator Morse’s request to have the Attorney General get involved. Michael Delaney, the Attorney General, was at the meeting and said he understood the intention of Senator Morse’s request and he accepted the assignment.
There are years of work, disappointment and frustration and millions of tax dollars involved. It is sad that the process has moved from a management problem to a potentially legal one. But sometimes frustrated legislators have to use the tools available to seek solutions. It’s all part of the quiet season of legislating.
In its 117 page report, "What is New Hampshire? 2011 Edition," The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies says that the in-migration that kept us the ". . .fastest growing state in the Northeast for years" may have stalled due to the recession. Benefiting from past demographic patterns, however, the state remains wealthier and more highly educated on average than the national population.
Increasingly, our population is older vs. the national average, 41.1 years of age to 36.5 nationally. And the majority of our population was born outside New Hampshire, 52 percent vs. a national average of just 24.8.
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