AFT-NH Legislative Bulletin, 2019-05

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March 26, 2019 ~ Bow, NH

 

The NH Legislature is in a momentary lull, having just survived “crossover,” the deadline date by which bills must be acted on in order to move across to the other branch of the legislature.  On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, the House considered over 150 bills.  Approximately one-half were on the Consent Calendar with unanimous or almost unanimous bipartisan committee recommendations to pass or defeat.  Unless a bill is removed from the Consent Calendar, the House then takes one vote to “approve the Consent Calendar,” after which all the bills still on it are passed or defeated as recommended.  So, it is a short-cut, avoiding unnecessary delay in considering what are often minor or duplicative bills.

School Calendars   Although the House was busy, there was relatively little legislation of immediate importance to AFT-NH.  Passing on the Consent calendar was one bill, HB 447, of interest to those working in public education.  This bill restates that control over school calendars, including start and finish dates for school years, remains under local school board control.  By doing so, the bill quashes for the moment the Governor’s proclaimed desire to force all public schools in NH to open after Labor Day, so that the supply of cheaper teenage labor would remain available all summer for the hospitality and tourist industries.  Now isn’t Waterville Valley in that category of businesses?

Later, there was vigorous debate over HB 529, which would prohibit a school district employee from assisting a person convicted of molesting a minor child.  The proposed bill grew out of the controversies surrounding the case of a Bedford guidance counselor convicted of sexually assaulting a 14 year-old student.  At issue here is not the conviction but the decision on the part of some public school employees to testify as character witnesses for the convicted guidance counselor.  Reprehensible as the crime is and regrettable as we might find the decision to serve as a character witness for the convicted counselor, nevertheless, the bill did not come forth in properly limited form.  As written, it would intrude upon the free speech rights of school employees who, on their own, might choose to serve as witnesses for the defendant.  While a law can forbid a school employee from testifying as a public employee and on behalf of his/her employer, the law cannot prohibit their exercise of their private free-speech rights.  We may dislike it, even dislike it immensely, but that is why there are rights.  As is often pointed out, one has not defended free speech until one defends speech you dislike or even abhor.  That is the test, and in this case, while House members would undoubtedly condemn the crime and be disturbed by decisions to testify, nonetheless, the majority correctly voted to defend private free speech rights.  A difficult choice, but the correct decision.

Otherwise, most of the legislation over the past two weeks has not been of direct or immediate concern to AFT-NH.  Both the Senate and the House passed minimum wage bills, which is good news for low-wage employees in NH, though what form the bill will take when it finally reaches the Governor is unclear (he has vowed to veto, preferring to keep wages low).  The House also passed SB1, the Senate version of family and medical leave insurance.  This would create a State-run system of insurance providing paid leave for workers with medical issues or who need time to care for family members.  The model for this system is the unemployment insurance system, which makes small deductions from payrolls in order to fund unemployment insurance.  Unemployment insurance has been with us in NH for over eighty years and has worked extraordinarily well, and it is the hope of AFT-NH that a family and medical leave insurance program also be established, to end the dilemma faced by so many—continue to work, or stay home to care for family and perhaps lose one’s job. 

Retirees’ COLA  Lastly, there is the continuing saga of a COLA for members of the NH Retirement System (NHRS).  Recall that the House passed a bill to implement the first cost-of-living increase in some ten years to retirees in the NHRS.  The Finance Committee, currently working on the proposed NH State budget for the next two year cycle, is now considering including this COLA (a modest 1.5% increase) in the State budget.  At present, it appears an increase is in the offing, but only on $30,000 of any pension.  Retirees earning more than $30,000  per year would receive no increase on the monies paid out over $30,000.  There is the possibility of raising the threshold to $50,000, which would cover more retirees and mean a maximum benefit of $750/year while excluding those at the high end of the retirement pension system.  Needless to say, most public education retirees would benefit, since we are not at that high end of the benefits scale, and AFT-NH continues to observe and monitor this situation as part of the NH Retirement Security Coalition. 

Going forward, there will be a House session on April 4, to consider the small number of remaining bills which passed one vote but were sent to a second committee.  These bills must be acted on by April 4.  All eyes, however, will be turned to the House Finance Committee, which will unveil their version of NH’s state budget in less than two weeks.  The House will vote on that budget on April 11, and then the fun starts all over again as the Senate takes a whack at the budget.  In the meantime, both branches of the legislature will begin considering bills passed and sent over to them by their opposite counterparts (Senate bills in the House, House bills in the Senate).  So the pace will slow, but the work grinds on. 

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