On its last day in session, New Hampshire House OKs dozens of measures
Minimum wage hike fails to garner two-thirds, but prescription drug-related package gain wide support
Those are the subjects of just of some of the 75 business-related bills passed by the New Hampshire House in a session held Tuesday at the Whittemore Arena at the University of New Hampshire. They next go to Gov. Chris Sununu, though whether he’ll sign or veto them will be a story (or several) for other days.
In a session distorted by the pandemic and partisanship, the Democratic House – which was unable last month to get the Republican minority to agree to change the rules to pass the body’s own legislation – agreed to nearly all of the measures passed by the Senate.
That included some massive omnibus bills that grouped together dozens of House and Senate measures that could not make it through a legislative process, shortened by the pandemic.
For instance, one bill, House Bill 1234, contained 40 former individual bills, dealing with everything from electrical energy storage to solid waste reduction to taxing rental cars to industrial hemp to local options for sports book operations. It also includes formation of the Lakes Region Development Authority to develop the site of the former State School in Laconia – similar to the Pease Development Authority – which Sununu said last week was a “terrible idea.” But he wasn’t sure if he would veto the entire omnibus bill because it might contain bills he would support.
Another bill – HB 1558 mainly, dealing with education – also has provisions dealing with economic revitalization zone tax credits and changing the threshold for municipal bonding votes.
“This Christmas tree has more decorations than the outside of Rockefeller Center,” said Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro
Most votes fell below the two-thirds threshold to override a gubernatorial veto. Some standalone bills in particularly likely don’t have much of a chance at eventual passage.
One of them is HB 731, which would increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour in 2021 and $12 per hour in 2023, is similar to a bill Sununu has vetoed in the past.
The debate over the minimum wage was framed – like so many others – by the current crisis.
“Now in the time of Covid 19, businesses are all suffering. Cost related to payroll is going up. They can barely survive. Some of them will close if this bill passes,” said Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline.
“It is the perfect time to raise the minimum wage,” countered Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Grantham. “All those folks working the front lines will benefit.” He argued that raising the minimum would push all those on the lower end of the pay scale. “When we go to the grocery stores, we dash in and out. We don’t stand around for eight hours stocking shelves. These folks need to be recognized, and a minimum wage increase would do that.”
Then there was HB 1116, designed to protect people who are losing their federally enhanced unemployment benefits at the end of July.
The bill wouldn’t increase the rate paid by the state, but it would make some expanded Covid-related eligibility rules permanent, provide personal protective equipment to workers and small businesses, waive testing co-pays for Covid-19 and give $50 million of federal CARES Act funds to the Department of Employment Security. It would also extend unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act requirements to businesses with more than 15 employees for Covid-related reasons. The current threshold is 50.
The bill also includes a severability clause in response to criticism that it could endanger hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding for the unemployment trust fund which could drive up unemployment insurance costs – already set to go up because of the massive drain on the fund – even further.
But that wasn’t enough for Sununu who maintained the measure would “destroy” the state’s unemployment system, all but promising a veto.
The bill also was strongly opposed by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, particularly irked by a provision that would allow workers to collect benefits if they think the workplace they are being called back to isn’t safe. The bill passed by one of the slimmest margins of all on Tuesday, 178-154.
On the other hand, bills dealing with water pollution – also strongly opposed by the BIA – might have a better chance of surviving
HB 1264 – passed 23-1 by the Senate – is made up of four bills dealing with perfluorochemicals or PFAS, the ubiquitous chemicals used in manufacturing. The bill includes a provision setting maximum contaminant levels for drinking water and sets up a $50 million, low-interest loan fund for municipal waste systems affected by PFAS, to be forgiven if the chemical’s manufacturer either settles or loses a multistate suit.
But who knows when and if that will ever settle, complained opponents, and that would increase the state’s long-term debt by 7%, jeopardizing its bond rating, said Rep. William Marsh, R-Wolfeboro.
“There is nothing more precious than having the ability to drink clean water,” replied Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. “Bonding capacity doesn’t equate with human life.”
The House passed the bill, 210-115, still short of a veto-proof majority but not by much.
The House passed HB 1375 by a vote that was over two-thirds. That bill would force manufacturers to pay the cost of medical monitoring of those exposed to toxic chemicals – including but not limited to PFAS. Opponents argued that it was too broad. One maintained that it could even include corn syrup. The bill passed by a 14-10 vote in the Senate. There, opponents argued that it should just have been limited to PFAS.
The prescription drug package – HB 1280 – might have the best chance of avoiding a veto, since Sununu himself testified in favor of two provisions included in it, including a bill that would allow wholesale importation of prescription drugs from Canada, which cost a lot less than in the United states. This has been a concept supported by both U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump., thought the bill could be largely symbolic since Canada has thus far been reluctant to sign on to such an idea.
The package also includes a provision – also supported by Sununu in the past – that would create a prescription drug affordability board to determine annual public payor spending targets for prescription drugs, but it also includes several other former bills, one that would include generic drugs in the state’s antitrust laws and another that would require that insurers approve prior authorization for prescription drugs, if the process drags on for more than 48 hours.
Perhaps the most concrete measures are aimed at two specific drugs: capping the price of insulin at $100 a month, not subject to a deductible, and requiring insurers to cover EpiPens, essential for those with hyper allergic reactions.
“No other state would dare to remove the deductible (on insulin),” said Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge “It will give pharmaceutical companies a blank check to charge whatever they want.”
But Rep. Ed Butler, D-Hart’s Location, noted that it passed the Senate unanimously, and called it a “good powerful bill that impact the price of prescription drugs.” It passed the House by a veto-proof 225-104 vote.