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Full-Day Kindergarten Makes It Out of Conference Committee. Drinking Water Bill Dies.

On the last day of conference committee work in the New Hampshire State House, a deal was reached to fund full-day kindergarten, but a bill aimed to improve water quality standards stalled in committee.

A last-minute deal was reached Thursday between GOP members of the House and Senate on using revenue from the lottery game Keno to fund the legislature’s plan for full-day kindergarten, but Democrats no longer support the bill. They say it doesn’t fully fund the program for all cities and towns and local communities are going to be left to pick up the bill. Exactly how much the state would spend per-pupil will depend on how much revenue is raised from taxing Keno.

The amendment presented by Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, guarantees school districts that want full-day kindergarten an extra $1,100 per kindergarten pupil. The state currently offers school districts an “adequacy grant” for half-day kindergarten of $1,800 per student, which is half of the $3,600 for students in grades 1-12. About 75 percent of the school districts in the state have already adopted full-day kindergarten using local property taxes to pay for it.

Democrats wanted the second half day of kindergarten to be fully funded at $1,800 per student in exchange for support on legalizing and regulating Keno. However, Republicans were cautious to do that out of concern that Keno would not generate enough revenue to support the full amount.

The amendment guarantees that at least $1,100 will go to funding full-day kindergarten since they are confident enough Keno revenue will be raised to do that. The state will fully fund the program at $1,800 if Keno revenues are enough. If not, the grants will be pro-rated per community at an amount between $1,100 and $1,800 depending on the exact amount that is raised from Keno.

Gov. Chris Sununu has made full-day kindergarten a priority for his first term in the Corner Office. While funding negotiations have constantly changed over the past few months in the State House, he applauded the deal lawmakers made and said it was a “first step” in getting the program fully funded.

“This is not a time for partisan politics, we need to get this done,” he said in a statement. “This is one of the most transformative pieces of legislation, and more progress for kindergarten than this state has ever seen.  As revenues increase, the amount of funding can increase for kids. It is not only a first step, it is a real plan that funds full-day kindergarten across every community in this state.”

But Democrats say this isn’t the deal they agreed on. Senate Democrats called it a “shell game.”

“Senate Democrats have been leading on Kindergarten for years, and we are glad Governor Sununu has at least attempted to follow our example. But, today’s failure to support full-day kindergarten like any other grade while giving even more tax cuts for the wealthy elite is a major disappointment and once again demonstrates Governor Sununu’s failure to lead,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand called the “kenogarten” policy “disingenuous.”

Former 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern was active on Twitter to express his disappointment that the deal reached in the conference committee didn’t guarantee full funding of kindergarten at the $1,800 level.

The full-day kindergarten bill is expected to pass in the House and Senate next week.

A separate bill that would lead to stronger standards for a toxic chemical in more than 200 communities’ drinking water ultimately died in committee.

The bill would have required the Department of Environmental Services to set a standard for a group of chemicals known as perfluorochemicals or PFCs. The state currently uses the federal government recommendation of 70 parts per trillion, but other states have set tougher standards.

The conference committee couldn’t agree on the bill due to concerns that it could require towns to make expensive upgrades to their water systems. The defeat of the bill in the legislative session saw both Republicans and Democrats disappointed that it failed.

“I am very disappointed House Republicans rejected drinking water standards that protect the public health, particularly prenatal and early childhood health,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord. “Just like on the budget, Republicans have caved to the know-it-all wealthy elite and big corporations at the expense of everyday Granite Staters – folks who just want clean drinking water for them and their children.”

According to recent research from the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, New Hampshire is tied with Alabama as having the second worst PFC contamination of drinking water in the country.

Sen. Dan Innis, R-New Castle — a sponsor of the bill — said it was a “common sense piece of legislation.”

“I am deeply disappointed that the House was unwilling to come to an agreement to better protect the citizens of my district and around the state from the growing concern about the quality of our drinking water,” he said. “This critical legislation will be the first bill that I file in the fall. It is imperative that we quickly come to an agreement to address this pressing issue for the Granite State.”

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Alcohol Fund Becomes Latest Political Battle for N.H. Lawmakers During Budget Process

When it comes to the opioid crisis, one would expect every state dollar allocated to the epidemic would be spent. That’s apparently not exactly what happened this fiscal year. A substantial surplus remains in the Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund, also known as the Alcohol Fund, and lawmakers are trying to pin the blame on almost everyone.

The Alcohol Fund was created in 2000 by the Legislature as a mechanism that takes 5 percent of the gross profits from the sale of alcohol to support education, prevention, treatment, and recovery programs for substance abuse, which encompasses alcohol and drug abuse.

The focus right now for the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery, which gives out the funds, is the opioid crisis, but alcohol abuse is also part of its mission. The commission was allocated approximately $9 million in the 2017 fiscal year and will reportedly end the year on June 30 $2 million to $4 million in the black.

Tym Rourke, chair of the governor’s commission, said he is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to determine the exact amount and will release those figures this week.

That’s where the confusion lies for legislators as they finalize the state’s biennium budget this month. DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers has said he anticipates a $2 million surplus from contracts that didn’t use their full funds. The nonpartisan Legislative Budget Assistant is putting the number at $4.3 million. The discrepancy and uncertainty as to why the funds weren’t all used during the year was on full display during the Senate marathon budget session on Wednesday.

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who also sits on the governor’s commission, questioned why there was an amendment introduced that would allocate $2 million from the Alcohol Fund for the construction of a juvenile substance abuse wing at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester without the commission’s approval.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said they had to have “some frank talk” about the Alcohol Fund.

“It is pathetic that there is $4.3 million sitting in an account unexpended in the middle of a heroin crisis. That’s what we should be focused on. That’s outrageous,” he said. “So let’s look at the reforms this amendment tries to put in place … that’s called taking action, not sitting on $4.3 million.”

Hennessey countered to say that the fund would only have a $2 million surplus, but said Gov. Chris Sununu and Meyers should also be to blame.

“The governor and commissioner at HHS have not helped to facilitate the spending of this,” she said. “They are waiting to find out what kind of health care we’re going to have, what’s going on with Medicaid, all of which is up in the air. So if our governor and HHS aren’t helping to make this possible, that money can’t be spent.”

The Alcohol Fund fund has only been fully financed one time since its inception, which was in the 2003-2004 biennium — the first year it began. Since then, governors or the Legislature transferred the revenue to the general fund and would only appropriate a small amount to the Alcohol Fund. In the current biennium passed under former Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, the fund was financed at 1.7 percent. In Sununu’s budget proposal and in the Senate’s budget, the fund was doubled to 3.4 percent.

Rourke applauded the Senate for increased monies to the fund, but reminded lawmakers that the Alcohol Fund is non-lapsing and any money left over is rolled over to the next fiscal year, so the commission could “repurpose and redeploy those dollars.”

Rourke said he had concerns about another amendment introduced in the Senate budget that would give the DHHS commissioner the ability to take money out of the Alcohol Fund itself and not from the potential surplus.

“The [governor’s] commission has a statutory authority over the fund and DHHS administers it, based on priorities set by the Commission” he told NH Journal. “The main concern is the precedent it would give for a commissioner to take money from the Alcohol Fund, without approval of the spending plan by the Commission.”

He said the 3.4 percent funding for the next biennium is mostly going to be used to sustain ongoing investments and state contracts to combat the opioid crisis. If the commissioner can take funds at anytime, Rourke is concerned that they would have to cancel contracts and put funding for other programs at risk.

So why is there a surplus in the first place? Rourke attributes it to two factors: Medicaid and workforce issues.

When the Legislature voted to renew Medicaid expansion in 2016, treatment and recovery centers were not clear if people who showed up would be covered by private or public insurance. The commission wanted to keep the funds available to those centers in case they needed to cover their insurance costs. Rourke said contractors ultimately didn’t need to draw on those funds.

He also said the workforce crisis in the mental health system resulted in funds not being used by contractors.

“We have treatment contractors who may have been given funding and have had a difficult time hiring appropriate staff,” he said. “Obviously, you’re not drawing on that salary while you’re waiting for that hire. If you talk to providers, there is that pressure on them on hiring and maintaining staff.”

The Senate budget is likely to go to a conference committee with the House, where lawmakers from both chambers will go over the details before voting on the final spending plan. The House previously stripped money for the Alcohol Fund in its version of the budget, so Rourke said he will continue to work with lawmakers on ensuring the funds are kept in place.

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With AHCA’s Defeat, Obamacare Remains. What Does That Mean for New Hampshire?

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) was pulled Friday minutes before a vote was to take place on the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, which essentially means Obamacare is here to stay.

House Republicans were shy of the votes needed to get the legislation passed, and defections from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members didn’t think the “repeal and replace” bill went far enough, put it out of reach for President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

After pulling the vote, Trump said that the “best thing we can do, politically speaking, is let Obamacare explode. It’s exploding right now. Almost all states have big problems.”

With no new health care plan in the foreseeable future, there are a couple of bills that New Hampshire lawmakers are expected to revisit that would make changes to Granite Staters’ health care.

Under AHCA, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 14 million fewer people would be insured in the first year if it passed. Although it was unknown how many New Hampshire residents could have lost coverage under the plan, about 91,000 people had individual plans on the health exchanges as of February, according to state estimates. Also, 52,000 low-income people in New Hampshire who have insurance through Medicaid expansion were at risk.

It didn’t take long for the Granite State’s all-Democratic congressional delegation to praise the withdrawal of the AHCA, citing how much harm it would do to the state’s residents.

“It’s time for them to admit that while the Affordable Care Act is not perfect, it has made New Hampshire and the country healthier and is worth improving, rather than repealing,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said to WMUR.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan also applauded the defeat of the bill.

“The failure of Trumpcare is good news for people across New Hampshire and America who would have faced higher costs for less care,” she said.

They also all said that Republicans and Democrats should work together to make improvements to former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“It’s time to have a serious discussion about improvements that can help our health care system work better for everyone,” U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter said. “There’s so much more work to do if we can put partisanship aside and work for the good of our constituents. Let’s get to work.”

Since it appears Congress isn’t going to change health care, it’s now up to the states to make changes within the scope of the ACA, and that’s what the New Hampshire Legislature will do. Leaders of each state party also seem ready to tackle Medicaid expansion with bipartisanship, yet there appears to be some disagreement over when it should get done.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he had issues with the AHCA and he wanted flexibility under the law to allow states the power to implement the policy in ways that made sense to each state. He previously supported a block grant system for Medicaid, which would have capped the federal share, letting the states decide how to spend the dollars on care.

“The bill that’s been proposed in Congress gives us concerns on a lot of different levels,” Sununu said last week. “Expanded Medicaid is part of that discussion. There’s no doubt expanded Medicaid has provided [drug] recovery, treatment options for a lot of folks that otherwise may not have had that option available.”

New Hampshire was one of 31 states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. Former Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the plan into law in 2014 after working with Republican legislators to approve it in two-year increments. She signed the latest expansion bill in 2016. New Hampshire has more than 187,000 individuals enrolled in either traditional or expanded Medicaid, according to state health officials.

Now that block grants aren’t on the table anymore, New Hampshire lawmakers will figure out if they want to extend the program past 2018. The Senate tabled a bill last week, without debate, that would make Medicaid expansion permanent. Senate leadership said they wanted to see what happened with the AHCA before they debated Medicaid expansion in the state.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn told NH1 News that “what we designed in a bipartisan fashion clearly has worked. Democrats are ready to move immediately.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said lawmakers shouldn’t rush into anything, especially since the New Hampshire Protection Health Program doesn’t expire until the end of next year.

“Even though the legislation in Washington was pulled and there’s no changes right now to federal guidelines for Medicaid Expansion, I think before we think about reauthorizing the current program, we need to make sure that’s exactly what’s going to happen in Washington that three or four or five months from now, they’re not coming back with a new health care bill,” Bradley told NH1 News. “If December comes and there are no changes to the ACA, that will guide us in what we’re going to do in terms of Medicaid Expansion next year. To me that’s the prudent way to do it. It’s what we did in 2016. We waited for the implementation to go forward in [2015]…So I continue to think doing it now is premature.”

Sununu has also previously indicated that he doesn’t want to continue kicking the can down the road with Medicaid expansion by renewing it every two years. He said he wants to find a long-term solution.

The right-leaning public policy group, Federalism in Action, released a 2016 study discussing the issue of long term care in New Hampshire and the challenges it will face in the future.

“New Hampshire is an apt harbinger of the country’s long-term care challenges. The state’s age 85 plus population will nearly quadruple in the next three and a half decades,” the report stated. “If its Medicaid long-term care expenditures for the elderly keep pace they’ll increase from $282 million per year to $1,047 million, more than one billion dollars every year. Sustainability at that level is highly dubious.”

It’s not immediately clear if New Hampshire lawmakers plan on taking the Medicaid expansion bill off the table in 2017 or will debate in 2018.

The N.H. Senate also tabled Senate Bill 149 last week that would allow out-of-state health insurance companies to operate in the Granite State without providing the benefits required under state law. It was tabled most likely to see what the federal government was going to do.

Significant questions still remain over what Obamacare would have in store for people with health insurance on the exchanges. Health experts are also curious about how the insurance industry will react in 2018. Will they stay or leave? What will rates be like? Minuteman Health in New Hampshire said it plans to be on the exchange in 2018, but no other health insurer has yet to say it would remain in the state.

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NH Senate Bill Would Allow for ‘Involuntary Commitment’ for Opioid Addictions

If John Carter had been involuntary committed after he overdosed on opioids, then he might still be alive. That’s what some members of his family said when they spoke in favor of a bill that would add opioid addiction to the state’s mental illness definition in order to expand the involuntary commitment criteria for admission to mental health institutions.

John, better known as Bubba, started his drug addiction at the young age of 13 years old by smoking marijuana. By 16 years old, he went to his first drug rehabilitation center. He went more than three times during a three-year period, unable to beat his addiction. At 18 years old, he started to use intravenous drugs, and two weeks before his fatal overdose, his family went to the police to get him committed. The police said their hands were tied and couldn’t do anything, his father Jack Carter told a Senate committee on Tuesday.

“We don’t have time to wait,” he said. “There’s no reason for more families to bury their kids. These are our children. Something has to get done. President [Donald] Trump called New Hampshire ground zero for the opioid crisis. It’s time to step up and do something for these families, for us, for the kids of our future.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley introduced Senate Bill 220 in the the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. If enacted, it would expand the state’s mental illness definition to include those listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” which is published by the American Psychiatric Association and includes substance abuse and addiction as a mental disorder. The bill would also expand the involuntary commitment criteria for the state’s mental health services system.

In order to be committed, the bill states, “The person has ingested opioid substances such that the person’s behavior demonstrates that he or she lacks the capacity to care for his or her own welfare and that there is a likelihood of death, serious bodily injury or serious debilitation if admission is not ordered.”

Bradley said he understands that some people might oppose his bill on the grounds that treatment only works if the person is willing to seek it and that hospitals currently don’t have the space or funds to handle involuntary commitment.

“I know there are a couple of issues,” he said. “We are clearly a ‘live free or die’ state and we believe in individual responsibility,” he said. “But responsibility falls on [everyone] who sees someone who is addicted to substances, which is an illness, and needs help. And sometimes people don’t want to seek help and then it becomes our responsibility to help those people. We ought to be able to have this tool to help people who are reluctant to seek out help. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that even in our live free or die state.”

Bradley expects the bill to be retained and worked on over the following months to discuss what the new law would cost the state and improve the language to better define what the process to be uncommitted would entail. Yet, it has bipartisan support with Democratic and Republican cosponsors.

From 2014 to 2015, New Hampshire saw a 31 percent increase in deaths from drug overdose, which is the second highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New Hampshire estimates 470 deaths will be attributed to drug overdoses in 2016, but the number officially stands at 385, as 85 cases are still being investigated. The chief medical examiner predicts more than 450 people will die from an overdose in 2017.

As of 2011, 38 states had some form of an involuntary substance abuse treatment law that are separate from any kind of criminal issues, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

From the other people who testified, the overall sentiment was general support for trying to combat the opioid crisis, but they also sought more information on the specifics of the bill.

“This is a very complex issue,” said Alexander de Nesnera, interim chief medical officer at New Hampshire Hospital. “When individuals go through detox, they are usually on many medications and it could complicate the medical detox process if they’re not monitored very carefully. When you look at developing a system for individuals to be involuntary hospitalized, we need to make sure the receiving facility is linked to a hospital directly, so they can receive treatment if there are severe complications of detox that occur.”

De Nesera also cautioned lawmakers on the possible consequences of the bill.

“By changing the definition of mental illness, you would greatly expand the number of people. Currently, there are 44 patients that are waiting admission to New Hampshire Hospital,” he said.”If we were to expand the definition of mental illness, the numbers in the queue would expand greatly. We only have 168 beds, and with that limited capacity, patients are in waiting rooms to get treatment. That’s not the answer.”

He encouraged legislators to think about investing in more outpatient programs and to have a conversation with the hospitals in the state about what would work for them.

New Hampshire is poised to receive some federal assistance from the 21st Century Cures Act, but not nearly as much as lawmakers expected. When President Barack Obama signed the act into law last year, New Hampshire officials anticipated getting $10 million over the next biennium. It turned out the state is only getting $6 million. State officials thought the money would be distributed based on per-capita overdose deaths, but that’s not what happened. New Hampshire has the second highest overdose deaths per capita in the country, yet California, who has a per-capita rate that is nearly two-thirds lower than New Hampshire, will receive the most money.

“I think our members of Congress across the country have started to recognize that the heroin epidemic is a serious problem and needs more resources,” Bradley said. “I’m surprised to see the way it’s been allocated in New Hampshire. Hopefully, that can be rectified. That being said, we also have to continue what we’ve been doing in the last budget and allocate more of our resources.”

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Was the Possible Delay in NH’s Gender Identity Bill Expected?

A bill banning discrimination against gender identity appears to be in trouble in the New Hampshire House. Before the House votes, House Speaker Shawn Jasper is recommending that representatives table the bill.

“The bill is just not ready to move forward,” he told the Concord Monitor. “My concern is with those who are transitioning … going into restrooms, showers, locker rooms, anyplace where it may make someone uncomfortable for a whole myriad of reasons.”

House Bill 478 would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. At least 18 other states, including other New England states like Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have gender identity anti-discrimination laws on the books, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

New Hampshire already has a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity. A previous version of this bill was defeated in 2009, but former Gov. Maggie Hassan signed an executive order banning gender identity discrimination in state government.

The current bill passed the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee on a 15-2 vote, and includes sponsors from high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, including House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley.

Over the weekend, lawmakers’ email accounts were flooded with comments about the legislation. More than 800 emails since Friday appeared in representatives’ inboxes through the House-wide listserv, according to reports. The hard part is sifting through it all to determine who is writing and where its coming from.

Some of the emails were templates from people who didn’t give an address or full name, making it difficult to determine if they were state residents or not, and lawmakers said they were receiving more emails in opposition than in support of the bill, resulting in some representatives changing their support.

“The public is not ready,” wrote Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, in an email to all House members on Sunday. Edwards backed the bill in committee, but changed his mind after the influx in messages.

“The number of people who have written stating that this bill essentially offers their children up to sexual predators is outrunning by 5 to 1 the number of emails stating that it’s time to end the daily beatings of transgendered people,” he added. “The passionate are yelling past each other with worst case scenarios. I don’t think this is an environment in which the legislature should pick a side.”

Advocates of the bill turned out in overwhelming support for the bill when the committee heard public testimony on it in February, making it seem like it had the majority of public backing and would sail through the rest of the Republican-led Legislature. They say the protections are needed for transgender people, who testified they have been fired, harassed, or discriminated against because of their gender identity.

“I have experienced way too many instances of employment discrimination,” said Shana Aisenberg, a transgendered woman from Freedom who is a musician and music teacher, at the hearing. “Musicians with whom I play stopped calling me. Students cancelled lessons. A music camp where I taught for 10 years fired me because I changed my gender.”

However, opponents of the bill said it could lead to men entering women’s bathrooms to take advantage of them. The bill is not specifically about bathrooms, but it’s an example that’s been widely used throughout the country. Conservatives say it’s about protecting the rights of privacy and religious liberty for New Hampshire residents.

On the religious liberty front, Cornerstone Action is claiming that the bill would negatively impact churches and religious organizations. A lawsuit could potentially arise out of churches, faith-based charities, schools, and ministries who are protected by the state religious exemption, but it’s only applied to “persons of the same religioun or denomination.”

Law experts have argued that these faith-based organizations would have to check everyone at the door to determine if they are of the same religion or denomination in order to maintain separate gender bathrooms. Even if someone argues that they belong to the same religion, they could sue for discrimination against their rights, and the legal fees could be crippling for the faith-based groups. They point to an incident that happened in Massachusetts last year as an example.

Cornerstone Chairman Charlie McKinney wrote a letter to constituents asking them to sign on to a petition that would go to Jasper. The petition states the bill puts “the feelings of gender-confused individuals” over citizen privacy and safety.

“For centuries, we have had social mores, now dubbed ‘discriminatory,’ that are in truth loving, since they informally embraced a moral code that pointed to acceptance of how God created us,” he wrote in the letter. “Although most of the national press on this issue has focused on bathrooms, that’s not what is really at stake for us as Christians. At issue here, as with most other social issues, is the freedom to declare the Truth and conform our lives to the will and design of our Father and Creator.”

It’s possible that a majority of Jasper’s emails are coming from people who signed the petition, which includes a pre-written text. But Freedom New Hampshire, a group that supports the bill, also has a similar message on its website for people to sign, click, and send to their representatives.

“This legislation is about leveling the playing field. Everyone deserves to work hard, put a roof over their head and participate in public life without constant fear of discrimination,” the note states. “But because there are no explicit protections for transgender people under state law in housing, employment, or public accommodations, they must live in fear every day of being wrongly fired, evicted, or denied service—just because of who they are.”

Yet, the possible defeat, or delay, of this bill could have been expected, according to a recent survey on the bill. The Citizens Count, NH’s Live Free or Die Alliance — a nonpartisan organization looking to give citizen’s a voice in their local government — conducted a Facebook survey of New Hampshire residents on their support for the bill in January.

Approximately 56 percent of respondents said they opposed the bill and 44 percent said they supported it. Of course, the methodology is not an exact science, but the results and testimony provide insight from people who might not be able to attend a public hearing at the State House in the middle of a work day.

The national debate on transgender rights comes at a difficult time in the community’s fight. It started last year when North Carolina passed a bill requiring people to use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. Texas is poised to take up a similar bill during the current legislative session.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent a case involving a Virginia transgender high school student, who is seeking to use school bathrooms that match his gender identity, back to a lower court, meaning that it will go back to a court of appeals and makes it highly unlikely the Supreme Court will hear it this term.

This decision comes on the heels of a change in policy by President Donald Trump’s administration, which revoked last month Obama-era guidelines on protections for transgender students in public schools.
The House is expected to vote on the bill during their Wednesday executive session.

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Senator Presents Ambitious Proposal For More Affordable Housing in NH

When Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, introduced a bill Wednesday, he sought a $25 million appropriation to the state’s affordable housing fund. Instead, he’s walking away with $5 million at best.

Senate Bill 94 would have put $25 million in the NH Housing Finance Authority’s Affordable Housing Fund to do what its name suggests — create more affordable housing for Granite Staters.

“This is a competitiveness issue,” Feltes testified before the Senate Capital Budget Committee. “We have to think about housing. I think, quite frankly, if there is one bill that’s a top priority, this is it. We have to do something right now and something significant.”

This funding mechanism isn’t anything new. It’s been around since its creation in 1988, under former Republican Gov. John H. Sununu, to be a revolving loan fund that provides low-interest loans and grants to build, rehabilitate, or acquire affordable housing. It’s first appropriation was $4.5 million. Since then, there have only been a few times when the Legislature has added cash to the fund. The fund didn’t see another dime until 2002, when $5 million was added to it.

In 2007, during Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s administration, approximately $750,000 was given to the fund. In 2015, $800,000 was added, and in 2016 $2 million was appropriated, but that money was earmarked for housing for people with substance use disorders.

The appropriation last year came to fruition on Tuesday where city and state officials broke ground for the Families in Transition’s Family Willows Substance Use Treatment Center and Recovery Housing in Manchester. The expanded treatment center and recovery housing focuses on women, and mothers with children dealing with the opioid crisis. It’s expected to provide treatment for about 400 women. Gov. Chris Sununu and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

Feltes said the lack of funding for affordable housing is a “workforce, jobs, and competitiveness issue.” Testimony from leading experts on affordable housing in the state said all three areas are connected and important for New Hampshire’s future.

Without affordable housing in the state, people have trouble finding a place to live and workers end up living farther away from their jobs. Sometimes that’s too much for employees, so companies are left with an inadequate workforce, and without a strong workforce, or affordable housing, the state won’t be able to convince businesses to come and set up shop.

“You’ll hear about how we need a stronger workforce and affordable housing to keep the young working families that are demographically and economically needed as we move forward,” Feltes said.

Feltes is right. Lawmakers have heard testimony and had meetings from advocacy groups, government agencies, and political experts on how New Hampshire’s aging population will impact housing, transportation, and health care costs.

Already, workers are feeling the crunch of high housing costs, spending approximately 60 to 75 percent of their income on housing each month, according to Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, a coalition of organizations and businesses advocating for expanded workforce and affordable housing options.

Currently, the statewide median rent in New Hampshire is approximately $1,206 a month, she said, which is a 15 percent increase from five years ago. The vacancy rate, a factor in what’s driving the rising rents, is at 2 percent statewide and about 1 percent near the larger job centers.

The Granite State has already fallen behind the rest of New England and most of the country in terms of providing funding for affordable housing.

Rhode Island voters recently approved a $50 million bond for their state’s housing trust fund. They previously issued a $25 million bond in 2012 and a $50 million bond in 2006. Vermont uses a percentage of their real estate transfer tax for its housing trust fund, which is about $9 million a year.

In Maine, which has a similar population size to New Hampshire and similar workforce challenges, regularly funds its trust fund through their real estate transfer tax, with about $6 million invested annually. In 2009, a $50 million bond was approved, followed by another $15 million bond in 2015.

Connecticut and Massachusetts have also recently appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars a year to affordable housing.

Dean Christon, executive director of NH Housing Finance Authority, said the fund gives them “a lot of flexibility into how these dollars are being used.” They can be spent on housing from homeless shelters to senior housing to workforce rental housing.

David Juvet, senior vice president of public policy for the NH Business and Industry Association, said for the businesses he talks to, workforce and housing are the top issue for them.

When asked by Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, if the state should have “some skin in the game,” he responded that “there is some legitimate policy reason why the state should be involved with helping to assist economic development.”

The issue of affordable housing, workforce development, and business competitiveness of the state is usually a bipartisan issue. Everyone wants to see New Hampshire succeed. Affordable housing, especially when it comes to providing relief for the substance abuse crisis, also receives bipartisan support.

The bill only had Democratic support though, including Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn and House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff.

So why aren’t Republicans jumping on board? Well, it’s most likely the price tag of the legislation — $25 million can be a hard sell. During the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley asked a witness if they would the measure if it were a different amount.

The committee also has to tackle a more pressing issue with the unanticipated charge costing the state millions of dollars to convert several state-owned buildings to natural gas after Concord Steam Corp. announced plans to close this year. The Senate Capital Budget Committee will her testimony on that bill in the coming weeks.

Ultimately, the committee unanimously voted on an amendment to changed the $25 million appropriation to the Affordable Housing Fund to only $5 million, and then they recommended that the bill “ought to pass” when it goes to the Senate soon.

Some activists say any little bit can help “move the needle” some more.

“We need the state’s oar int he water to help steer the ship,” said Evelyn Whelton of the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition. “A small push at the state level would influence housing growth and send a signal to businesses and those who want to move here, that we are engaged in economic development and are serious about it.”

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NH Senate Bill Seeks to Get More People Off Food Stamps

A bill seeking to change the requirements to receive food stamps in New Hampshire could be much needed reform for the welfare system or would prevent about 17,000 people from getting food assistance. It just depends on who’s talking.

Senate Bill 7 was introduced by Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, on Tuesday in front of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and includes key provisions such as requiring the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to use federal limits to evaluate families for food stamp eligibility and requiring individuals to pay child support if they receive food stamps.

“It’s time for this reform to take place,” Avard said. “Food stamp programs have outpaced job programs. We need to get people back into the workforce. The intent of this legislation is to strengthen New Hampshire’s food stamp program so that it can remain solvent for those who truly need the benefits for years to come. By requiring an asset test, we are protecting those most in need be ensuring precious resources are not being diverted to those who do not need assistance.”

Avard is especially passionate about the child support provision, because he said it personally affects his family. He said his daughter is owed $29,000 in child support.

“That affects my grandchildren,” Avard said. “We need to reverse that trend, we need to support the parents that have dependent children. Our children deserve better.”

Democratic Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark questioned the child support provision and how the state would force noncustodial parents to pay the money.The bill would require individuals to cooperate with the Division of Child Support Services, and custodial parents who seek food stamp assistance would have to identify the noncustodial parent.

Opponents find fault with the child support provision, but they also say the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is already very precise, not easily abused, and the bill would target families who are working but are struggling to pay their bills.

“(Senate Bill) 7 is directed at struggling working poor families with children,” said Sarah Mattson Dustin, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. “They’re working, but they still can’t make ends meet with the high cost of basic needs. The need for food is the most basic of human needs.”

She said the law would make it difficult for people to qualify for food stamps if they have a gross family income greater than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — or $2,184 a month for a family of three. The federal government pays for SNAP benefits, but New Hampshire covers 50 percent of the administrative costs of the program.

The bill would also get rid of “expanded categorical eligibility,” a mechanism within the law that allows for families who make more than income limit to receive food assistance, but still have enough expenses for services like child care that if factored into the formula, would qualify them for food stamps. Opponents said striking that provision would negatively affect the families and children on welfare.

The Granite State’s expanded categorical eligibility differs from many states because in order to qualify for that, they must have children.

Sam Adolphsen, commissioner of finance for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, said he supports the bill since the neighboring state has a similar law on the books.

“Welfare for able-bodied adults should be temporary and they shouldn’t rely on taxpayers,” he testified. “Those who can go to work should work.”

Maine’s food assistance law, passed under Republican Gov. Paul LePage, also includes work and volunteer requirements. Adolphsen said the state has led the country in getting people off food stamps and into a job.

“They didn’t just disappear,” he said. “They went to work. A job truly lifted them out of poverty.”

However, a report by the Portland Press Herald found that even though there are fewer people on food stamps, the state received approximately $155 million in federal food assistance funds that it is not spending, and is trying to divert to programs to help the elderly.

The number of children who receive food assistance has dropped from 22,425 in 2012 to 8,461 in 2016, according to the Press Herald. Yet, there are still 19,000 kids living in extreme poverty.

Also, the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine’s largest hunger relief organization, released a study earlier this month titled, “Hunger Pains: Widespread food insecurity threatens Maine’s future,” which doesn’t paint a rosy picture on the current state of poverty in the state.

The New Hampshire Food Bank said if the bill was passed, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand of food. Even though less people would technically be on food stamps, Eileen Groll Liponis, executive director of the Food Bank, said she is concerned that cities and towns would need to foot the bill for food assistance as more families turn to local food pantries for help.

“We…are unable to handle the anticipated (food) poundage this bill would create,” she said. “That would take power to buy food away for so many.”

The bill does have the potential to make its way to the governor’s desk. Most of the Republican leadership in the Legislature supports it, including Senate President Chuck Morse, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who is also chair of the health and human services committee, and House Speaker Shawn Jasper.

Before the start of the legislative session, Jasper said he wanted to do something with welfare reform.

“There’s a lot more to do in the area of welfare reform, and we’re looking forward potentially to block grants coming from Washington that will take some of the strings off,” he told NH1 News in December. “There are a lot of things that we can do to actually save the taxpayers money now that we have control and do it in a way that takes care of the neediest people in the state but makes sure that the scams are kept to a minimum.”

 

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