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N.H. Senate President Responds to Sununu's Address, Eyes Action on Paid Family Leave

Allegra Boverman for NHPR
N.H. Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester.

New Hampshire Senate President Donna Soucy of Manchester gave a Democratic response to Gov. Chris Sununu's inaugural addressThursday in an interview with NHPR's Peter Biello. Sununu, a two-term Republican, begins the 2019-20 legislative session with Democrats in majority control of the House and Senate. 

So the governor said a lot in his speech today. He talked about mental health. He talked about DCYF, the state's economy. What among the many things he said were you happy to hear?

Well, I was happy to hear the governor recognize some of the bipartisan achievements that we have achieved in the Senate, looking at Medicaid expansion certainly as one of the major achievements. I was happy to hear that he's interested in looking at education funding going forward. And I think overall the governor had certainly many personal stories and tried to strike a bipartisan chord with his speech.

One of the things he said about Medicaid expansion had to do with the work requirement. One of the strongest things he said to the legislature here was that the legislature shouldn't obstruct these work requirements that were passed recently. Do Democrats plan to quote unquote "obstruct these work requirements" and if so, how?

Well, think that was the mischaracterization. I think what the governor was referring to was a vote recently taken by the Rules Committee to put on hold some of the changes that the Trump administration had proposed to the work requirement. You may be aware, Peter, this past year the legislature -- both Democrats and Republicans -- worked very hard to craft a very New Hampshire specific and careful solution. I think we all believe that work and the dignity of work is a very important component of Medicaid expansion and we really achieved what I think was a very balanced and very fair compromise. The Trump administration wants to make some changes to that. And I think the vote of the Rules Committee was to put a hold on that -- not to obstruct in any way the work requirement, but to ensure that some of our most vulnerable participants in the Medicaid expansion program, particularly those with disabilities, don't accidentally get forced out of the system because of details with respect to how they're calculating the time spent working.

[When Low Taxes Aren't Enough: How State-Backed Incentives Lure Businesses to N.H.]

Regarding mental health, Governor Sununu called for moving the state psychiatric unit out of the state prison. Do you welcome that?

Yes, I think that was probably one of his biggest applause lines of the day. Certainly, Representative Renny Cushing was the first one to stand and we certainly all followed. I think that's something that's been a long time in coming. I think people recognize that incarcerating someone who's mentally ill is not the right thing to do. And I also think that in New Hampshire we have foregone a lot of Medicaid dollars that we could have otherwise received for treating these individuals but for the fact they're in what is deemed to be a correctional setting as opposed to a therapeutic setting. So I think there's a real opportunity to not only provide more appropriate care but also to perhaps access federal dollars in better providing that care to these individuals that are in the SPU (secure psychiatric unit). 

"Senate Democrats are united in our support of a piece of legislation ... to suspend future but stabilize the business tax revenues as we see them coming in."

The governor linked the state's economic success to the reduction in business taxes. He thinks the reduction in business taxes has been good overall for the state's economy. Now House Speaker Steve Shurtleff appears to be open to rolling back some of those cuts.  Where do Senate Democrats stand on that?

Senate Democrats are united in our support of a piece of legislation Senator D'Allesandro is bringing forward. It will suspend and stabilize the business taxes, so it will not do anything to the cuts that have already occurred. Those would remain in effect, but future cuts would not occur at this time. So it would, as I said, suspend future but stabilize the business tax revenues as we see them coming in.

Was there anything that you wish the governor had said today in his inaugural address?

The governor probably could have talked a little bit about some of the issues impacting families. One that he knows will be coming up - paid family medical leave. That's something that I think he chose not to address but is something that he probably should have because it's definitely a No.  1 priority in both the House and Senate.

Do you see any common ground with the governor with respect to paid family leave?

The governor has said that he's willing to look at the program. He did raise some objections in the past legislative session. Some of those suggestions have been incorporated into the bill that Senator Dan Feltes has sponsored. So I do think there are some areas. Overall we're going to debate the threshold of the number of employees a business has to have. And there are some other details that we're going to continue to look at, but we remain committed to ensuring, as I said, that families have opportunities to succeed and to thrive in this state. And one of the barriers to that oftentimes is having to choose between going to your job and caring for young children or elderly parents who need you. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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