Abortion, taxes and the Old Man of the Mountain: NH lawmakers have lots on their plate this year
When New Hampshire lawmakers get to work this week to open the 2023 legislative session, they’ll have plenty to keep them busy.
Their major task over the next six months will be to pass a new two-year state budget — something that could be especially challenging given the narrow political margin in the House this year. But there are plenty of other policy issues that will demand lawmakers’ attention.
Here’s an overview of some of them.
Expanded Medicaid renewal
Tens of thousands of people receive health coverage through New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion program, called Granite Advantage. But lawmakers will have to decide whether to renew it in the coming year.
The state expanded Medicaid to low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act in 2014. Lawmakers have since reauthorized it twice. The latest renewal runs through the end of 2023.
A study commission chaired by new state Senate President Jeb Bradley recently concluded it should be renewed.
At a forum in December, Bradley, a Republican, said he expects lawmakers will vote to keep the program going. He said expanding coverage has helped people take care of health issues and re-enter the workforce. It also means fewer uninsured people ending up in emergency rooms because they put off care.
“I think the nine years that we've had Medicaid expansion’s proved to be extraordinarily successful,” Bradley said.
More than 90,000 people are currently enrolled, though that number has grown in part due to federal requirements during the pandemic.
Heading into the first legislative session since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, state lawmakers have put forth competing bills to expand and restrict abortion access.
Democrats have filed several proposals to expand abortion rights, including one that would roll back the state’s 24-week abortion ban.
Rep. Amanda Elizabeth Toll of Keene is the lead sponsor on a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. Toll had an abortion as a teenager, and says her life would have gone differently had she not been able to make that choice.
“I think it would have been very difficult for me to go to school and to achieve my career goals and to have children when I was ready, and that determined the course of my entire life,” she said.
Meanwhile, three Republican representatives have proposed a so-called fetal heartbeat bill that would ban abortions after about six weeks. Rep. John Sellers, a Republican from Bristol, is one of the sponsors.
“I think the unborn baby needs a voice,” he said.
It’s unclear what if any abortion-related measures might pass the Republican-controlled Legislature this session. Gov. Chris Sununu and House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, both Republicans, have said they would not back further restrictions.
Abortion in New Hampshire remains legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The top Republican in the New Hampshire State House has filed a bill to repeal New Hampshire’s telecommunications tax. House Majority leader Jason Osborne says the point of eliminating the state’s 7% tax on two-way telecommunication is simple: to let a broad swath of people keep a bit more of their money.
"Just kind of hunting for more taxes to cut that affect everybody and don’t look like it’s favoring one particular sector over another,” Osborne said. “We get criticized a lot for supporting businesses but not property tax payers, for example."
The telecommunication tax has been on the books in New Hampshire since 1990. Last year, it collected around $40 million.
Other bills backed by House Republicans would speed the repeal of the state's interest and dividends tax.
Sununu hasn’t weighed in on cutting the telecommunications tax, but has said he hopes to reduce state taxes as part of the next two-year budget.
A trio of Democratic state senators is backing legislation to improve post-partum services for mothers. The proposal, which they are calling the "mom-nibus" bill, aims to make it easier for more mothers to breastfeed or feed their babies with human milk.
Hopkinton Sen. Becky Whitley said there is growing traction for policies that recognize the needs of mothers of newborns.
Whitley's bill, which she is co-sponsoring with fellow Democratic senators Sue Prentiss and Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka, aims to do that.
"The mom-nibus has a number of different sections in it but it's really focused on that post-partum period — and on those moms that are particularly vulnerable,” Whitley said. “These are our lower income moms who really need access to coverage for certain services."
Among other things, the bill would extend Medicaid coverage for post-partum coverage from 60 days to a year. The bill also envisions Medicaid adding coverage for lactation services and for donor milk for mothers who want to avoid or limit any reliance on formula.
Whitley estimates the cost of implementing her bill at around $4 million a year.
Democratic lawmakers say they will again try to lift New Hampshire's minimum wage above the floor set by federal law.
For years, Republicans have blocked efforts to raise New Hampshire's minimum wage above the federal floor of $7.25 per hour. Sununu has vetoed multiple bills that would have increased the minimum hourly wage here.
When Republicans control the Legislature, as they will in 2023, such bills don't get to the governor's desk.
Democratic Rep. Kris Schultz of Concord is sponsoring one of the Democrat-backed bills to bump up the minimum wage. She says New Hampshire needs to get its basic wage closer to those already in place in other New England states.
"All other states in New England — all of New England — are going to be at over $13 an hour this January 1st, and we are still roughly half that,” Schultz said. “I don't think that's something that should be written off."
Opponents of lifting New Hampshire's minimum wage say it would hurt some businesses and doesn't reflect what most hourly workers actually get paid.
Licenses for undocumented residents
New Hampshire lawmakers are again poised to take up legislation that could make it possible for undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.
A similar effort failed at the State House last session.
One proposal would change the penalty for driving without one to a violation, instead of a misdemeanor. Another proposal would allow people who cannot provide proof of citizenship and legal residency to submit alternative identification when applying for a drivers license.
Rep. Georges Sykes, a Democrat from Lebanon, says thousands of immigrants are estimated to benefit from this change.
Massachusetts passed a similar law this year.
Teacher loan forgiveness
A bill proposed by Democrats could offer loan forgiveness for college students going into public education.
Under the proposal, college grads who spend five years teaching in a geographic area or subject area with critical shortages would not have to pay back a specific state loan. Loans could be as big as ten thousand dollars.
The bill is designed to address long-term hiring difficulties in the areas of special education, math, science, and elementary education.
Rep. Mel Myler, a Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, says it would also help address the trend of college graduates leaving the state.
"It's very easy for someone to graduate from Keene State, for example, and begin their teaching in Massachusetts, for example, and make significantly more money as a beginning teacher,” Myler said.
New Hampshire lawmakers could take up a proposal next year that would expand patients' access to sterilization procedures at local hospitals.
The bill would prevent physicians from denying sterilization procedures to patients based on the "perceived future reproductive desires of the patient."
It's sponsored by Rep. Ellen Read, a Newmarket Democrat, who says it took her 12 years to get a hysterectomy to treat a medical condition because doctors didn't want her to be sterile.
She says many women encounter these kinds of delays, and she hopes the bill could get more bipartisan support than, say, a bill about abortion.
“We're not talking about a fetus; we're talking about a woman deciding that as an adult a treatment that she needs may leave her sterile, and she's ok with that,” she said.
If passed, the bill would add some clauses about sterilization to the state's current patients' bill of rights.
Old Man anniversary
2023 will also mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Old Man of the Mountain.
A bipartisan bill would recognize that date — May 3rd — every year, as Old Man of the Mountain Day.
The rock formation, hanging from the side of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch, also became a beloved landmark and cultural icon of New Hampshire. To this day, the profile still appears on the state quarter, highway signs and license plates.