N.H. lawmakers voting on budget, medical marijuana

Tuesday June 25, 2013

CONCORD, N.H. -- A $10.7 billion, two-year budget is expected to sail through New Hampshire’s Republican Senate and Democratic House on Wednesday, thanks to bipartisan agreements on spending and taxes.

The agreements increase funding for services for the disabled on a wait list and for the mentally ill, but the Republican-led Senate budget team refused to authorize expanding Medicaid starting Jan. 1 to an estimated 58,000 poor adults.

The budget package calls for six lawmakers to remain in Concord over the summer working on whether to expand Medicaid, a key component of the federal health care overhaul. Each state gets to decide on expansion. The six lawmakers will join three members of the public on a commission tasked with studying the impact of expansion and exploring alternatives, such as providing some coverage through private insurance.

The commission’s members have not been named ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Democratic leaders hold a 5-4 edge over Republicans on appointments to the commission. The panel is to hold its first meeting within seven days of the budget taking effect and issue a report Oct. 15.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, lobbied hard for negotiators to include authorization to implement Medicaid expansion in the budget, but Senate President Peter Bragdon insisted on a study first. Hassan said a special legislative session might be needed this fall to vote to authorize expansion.

Leaders from both parties in both chambers praised the budget overall.

The Democratic-led House team is pointing to the Republican team agreeing to move up the Medicaid study report due date more than a year to Oct. 15 as a sign of bipartisan compromise.

Republicans point to the House team agreeing to drop a proposed 20-cent cigarette tax increase and a delay in implementing tax breaks for businesses. The House team also agreed to drop an increase in the gas and diesel tax to pay for highway improvements. The House had killed a Senate casino bill that earmarked some revenue to road work.

Neither negotiating team was happy they could not find a way to avoid requiring the Department of Health and Human Services -- the state’s largest agency -- to cut $7 million out of its budget. Lawmakers are worried about the impact that might have on programs. Democrats also left the bargaining table unhappy about a $10 million cut Hassan must make in state worker staff and benefits. The state employees’ union said that will result in an unknown number of layoffs.

The budget contains money for a pay raise for workers, but the deal negotiated with the largest union is in jeopardy after union leaders voted not to recommend a ratification vote largely over a new health care deductible and sent negotiators back to the table.

Lawmakers also will vote Wednesday on compromise legislation legalizing medical marijuana and allowing student photo identification to continue to be accepted at the polls.

Hassan said she will sign the medical marijuana legislation to make New Hampshire the 19th state to allow seriously ill people to possess and use the drug for medical reasons. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of marijuana.

Hassan withdrew her objections when House and Senate negotiators last week agreed on a compromise the eliminated an option for patients to grow marijuana at home, which Hassan said would make it difficult to regulate. Instead, patients will obtain the drug at one of four dispensaries to be established.

The voter ID compromise modifies a law adopted last session by Republicans that ended recognition of student identification this Sept. 1.

Under the compromise, valid student identification will be allowed if the card is issued by a college or career school in New Hampshire or a high school in the state. Student IDs can be expired but the expiration date must have been within five years.

The bill postpones until 2015 a requirement for people who sign an affidavit instead of presenting an acceptable ID to have their picture taken at the polls. Moderators also can verify a person’s identity or allow IDs not specified by law though the decisions can be challenged and appealed to the secretary of state.


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