Gov. Maggie Hassan will deliver her first State of the State address Thursday to a joint session of New Hampshire lawmakers.
Hassan ended her first year in office with decent job-approval ratings – 51 percent versus 21 percent who disapprove, according to a recent poll.
She begins her second with a heightened national profile: In December, she was elected vice chair of the Democratic Governors Association, which spent heavily to help her defeat GOP challenger Ovide Lamontagne in 2012.
If history is any guide, Hassan won’t venture too deeply into partisan politics, preferring instead to emphasize a collaborative approach to problem solving. She’s likely to point out, for example, how New Hampshire’s divided legislature was able to craft a budget that restored funding to higher ed and social programs without raising taxes.
But State of the State speeches are as much about the future as about the past, and Hassan will take the podium with several major pieces of unfinished business . Here are some things we’ll be listening for.
House Democrats have once again passed a bill to make more Granite Staters eligible for Medicaid. It remains to be seen, though, whether Hassan will be able to negotiate an agreement with the Republican-led Senate. Expect her to again remind lawmakers that unless the program is expanded, the state stands to lose $2.4 billion in federal funds while thousands of residents remain uninsured.
Hassan lobbied hard for a casino last year, arguing a single “high-end” facility would boost the economy and create jobs, only to watch the Democratic-led House torpedo the legislation. This year, with no fewer than four expanded gambling proposals on the table, she’s signaled her support for HB 1633, a bill sponsored by members of the Gambling Regulatory Oversight Authority. That legislation recommends a single casino in southern New Hampshire and proposes a new regulatory structure that some casino opponents wanted.
Democrats and Republicans have argued for the better part of a year over which party deserves credit for the state’s improved balance sheet. The more immediate dispute is what to do with a $15.4 million budget surplus, which many Republicans want to tuck away in the so-called rainy day fund. If recent statements are any indication, Hassan will propose splitting the difference, with some of the surplus going to the rainy day fund and some toward restoring cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Hassan has already backed the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2014, a bill sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, that would prohibit employers from paying men and women differently for the same job. With the Democratic Governors Association planning to make the minimum wage a centerpiece in battleground states this year, Hassan is likely to urge legislators to re-establish a state minimum wage that’s above the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.
With lawmakers on both sides bemoaning the sorry state of New Hampshire’s roads and bridges, Hassan won’t ruffle many feathers calling for a solution. She’s unlikely to endorse the gas-tax hike proposed by a Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, although she hasn’t said she’d oppose it either. She’ll probably use the issue to call for a bipartisan consensus that more government investment in transportation and technology would benefit everyone. Also: see Casino Gambling.
This is a complicated issue for Hassan and something of a moving target. She’s been critical of Northern Pass, saying the hydro-power project offers few benefits for New Hampshire, while signing on to a regional initiative to build more pipeline and transmission capacity in New England. She’s been less vocal about the state’s ongoing review of how it approves major energy projects, especially wind farms. Anything she says on that subject will draw some attention.