We sit down with state House and Senate leaders, on their goals for the new session. The state budget will be their first priority, but other policy matters, from Medicaid to gun laws to voting rules, will be debated. What do you hope the Legislature does this year?
- Richard Hinch - Republican House Majority leader from Merrimack in his 5th term.
- Chuck Morse - Republican Senate President from Salem, in his 6th term in the Senate.
- Steve Shurtleff - Democratic Minority Leader in the House from Penacook; in his 7th term.
- Donna Soucy - Democrat from Manchester; 3 terms in the House and 3 in Senate.
Job One: The Budget
"The governor is going to deliver his budget to us and then we’ll go through it line by line, area by area, making sure that it’s prudent and balanced. So while the finance division is working on it, Ways and Means will be working on the revenue side as well," said Republican House Majority Leader Richard Hinch. "It is not unusual for the members of the finance committee to work five days a week, six days a week, during that time period. We have to get it through the House, then we have to get it through the Senate."
Beyond the Budget?
The House will consider about 800 bills this session; the Senate, about 300.
Lawmakers Hinch, Morse, Shurtleff, and Soucy agreed that the opioid crisis will top the legislative agenda in the coming months.
"I think we have to come to grips with the fact that we have a state of emergency in New Hampshire," Hinch said.
"We need to look at the recovery process," Senator Donna Soucy said. "I think we’re still not devoting enough attention and resources to the immediate point of contact, that being our firefighters and EMTs -- those people that are literally holding someone’s life in their hands when they revive them after an overdose. We also need to focus more on education at more primary grades and lower levels."
Medicaid Expansion In Question.
The opioid crisis is just one reason to continue Medicaid expansion, Soucy said. Under the program, several thousand Granite Staters have received treatment for substance abuse.
Senator Morse was one of the primary architects of the state's program."If I had anything to say to the administration that’s coming into Washington, it’s let the states solve these problems," he said. "And I think New Hampshire would solve these problems."
If Obamacare is repealed, that could mean the end of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for New Hampshire's program, which covers more than 50,000 people.
Lawmakers Share Personal Stories.
When it comes to the state's mental health services, challenges remain. Senator Morse said he's sympathetic but that money isn't enough to solve the problem.
"My dad was 95 percent deaf and had mental illness. And I certainly had to deal with that as a young child, going over the border to Massachusetts to get services, like I hear from many people, " Morse said. "But we put money into situations, and we don't manage our way through it."
For Rep. Shurtleff, a recent trip to Vietnam brought back memories of war that prompted him to seek counseling. He was diagnosed with PTSD.
Cultivating -- and Keeping -- Young Workers.
Senator Chuck Morse said the state needs to try to keep young people from leaving for work elsewhere. "We all want to make sure that someone who graduates from the university system graduates with as little debt as possible and can get a job here in New Hampshire," he said.
With half the students leaving right now, Representative Shurtleff placed some of the challenge on the university system for managing its budget wisely. "We have to look at UNH and making public education more affordable. We only provide maybe eight percent of the university budget, but I think the university needs to step up."
Will lawmakers reconsider rail as a way to attract young workers? Several Exchange listeners said the state should do so.
Morse said he's instead focused on completing widening I93. But he concedes that the state needs to make some changes if it's going to appeal to the younger population.
"We have to make sure that we get away from we traditionally did in this state. I mean growing up in Salem, we went to two-acre zoning because it’s what people wanted. Today, young people don’t want that. They want to live and work and play in the same area. I think that’s what we have to start to do, but along with that, I honestly believe that the permit to put the fourth lane on I93 will drive businesses to New Hampshire and cause businesses to expand to New Hampshire."
Senator Donna Soucy said Democrats plan to focus on various workforce issues, including the minimum wage, family leave, and more affordable child care.
Some Divisive Bills On The Front Burner.
Among the first is a proposed law that would remove the requirement to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Rep. Shurtleff said that would remove some important discretion among police chiefs, who issue the permits. And the legislature should be going in the other direction -- toward more rather than fewer restrictions. "I’m a hunter I own guns. I’ve carried guns as a law enforcement officer. So I am not anti gun by any means, former NRA member. But I think we’ve got to be very cautious and I’d like to see some of the loopholes we currently have such as the gun show and online loophole closed."
Senator Morse, however, is unconcerned. "My local police chief doesn’t even have time to give permits. I think today law enforcement understands that everyone may be carrying a gun. Most people who are causing the problems are those that are doing it illegally. And I think most people that carry guns in our state are law-abiding citizens."