2019 Legislative Session Underway
Bow, NH - February 4, 2019
The NH General Court (the Legislature) began its substantive work early in January, but it is only in the past two weeks that activity has really picked up. You may recall that the 2019-20 Legislature is quite different from the 2017-18 version. Voters erased Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House in the November 2018 elections, so Democrats now control the Senate 14-10 and the House by a nearly 60-vote margin. With a Republican governor still holding office, there will be a fair amount of friction and a need for some degree of cooperation between the Legislative and Executive branches if anything is to be accomplished. It is a new situation for both Democrats and Republicans, and it will be interesting to watch as the session unfolds over the next five months.
With Democrats in firm control of the Legislature, the threat of legislation hostile to working people, labor unions, and public education is greatly reduced. However, with a Republican governor in the corner office of the State House, it may prove difficult to move NH forward in ways supported by AFT-NH and the organizations allied with us. Above all, everyone must keep in mind that the 2020 election campaign is already underway, with presidential candidates flocking to NH and both parties already positioning themselves to retain or regain control of our NH government in less than 2 years. Let the fun begin!
In general issue areas of concern to AFT-NH, here are some brief summaries covering the past week and looking forward to the upcoming week.
NH Retirement System: This past week, the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee held hearings on two bills of great interest to AFT-NH. HB 629 would establish a new ‘defined contribution’ retirement plan to take effect on July 1, 2019, while HB 616 would provide a modest 1.5% cost-of-living (COLA) increase for retirees beginning on July 1, 2020. As a member of the NH Retirement Security Coalition, AFT-NH opposes transitioning to a ‘defined contribution’ plan, and last week’s hearing would seem to indicate little legislative support for it. As for HB 616, many retirees testified in favor of this bill and AFT-NH firmly supports it as well. It has been approximately ten years since NH retirees saw a COLA increase in their earned pensions, and even this proposal, with an increase of only 1.5%, would not even match the rate of inflation (approximately 2.75 to 3%). Each year without a COLA means pensions are worth even less than before due to inflation, and it is time our retirees were shown some respect for their years of hard work on behalf of New Hampshire’s citizens.
This coming Tuesday the E,D&A Committee will vote on HB 497, which would restore a portion of the State’s long-abandoned promise to help fund the pension costs for municipalities, counties, and school districts. NH walked away from its promises on this nearly ten years ago, and AFT-NH hopes that the Legislature will begin honoring its promises and also help reduce local property taxes, which now bear the burden abandoned by the State. If you would like to reach out to the E,D& A Committee to express your support for this bill, you can email the entire committee by clicking the following link: House Executive Departments and Administration Committee.
AFT-NH is a member of the NH Retirement Security Coalition. The mission of NHRSC is, “to focus solely on protecting the structure and solvency of New Hampshire Retirement System (NHRS), and the public pensions that support thousands of retirees, small businesses, and middle class families. To defend the fundamental contractual rights of all public employees, and to fight against changes to the NHRS that violate these contractual rights. To educate employees, employers, and the public on the benefits of a Defined Benefit plan, and to prevent the implementation of a Defined Contribution plan that would increase costs and harm New Hampshire communities. Weekly updates by the NHRSC are provided and you can visit their web page to see the latest news on retirement legislation at NH Retirement Security Coalition.
Education Funding: Last week the House Education Committee held hearings on a number of bills proposing various alterations in the State’s funding of public education. There were proposals to increase adequacy funding while other bills made very small increases in adequacy funding while eliminating the stabilization grants supporting districts with declining student populations. At this time, it is not clear what will emerge from the Education Committee, and there is another very interesting proposal (HB 686) that had its initial hearing last week in front of the House Ways & Means Committee. While HB 686 includes an increase of nearly $1000 in adequacy funding (the fictional amount that supposedly covers the cost of an “adequate education” per student) the bill also reverses prior cuts in stabilizations grants, cuts that have cost municipalities and towns such as Berlin and Winchester anywhere from hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars per year in education funding. Unlike other proposals, HB 686 provides a funding mechanism, adding capital gains as subject to the interest & dividends tax. The impact would be on a tiny sliver of the NH’s population, the wealthiest families in the State, while thousands of others would see a tax reduction through increasing the minimum amount one must earn in interest & dividends in order to be subject to taxation. The result would likely be property tax relief across the board combined with increased public education funding, something desperately needed with towns and cities strained to the limit and the business community calling loudly for improved public education and workforce training.
HB 686 will deserve continued and close monitoring as it wends its way through the committee hearings process. Other bills heard last week include HB 551 to establish a school funding commission, an effort to look at the long-term issues facing NH and what is being identified by growing numbers of citizens as an unfair and overly-burdensome reliance on property taxes for public education. Interestingly, one proposal heard in the Municipal & County Government Committee was to permit localities to reduce education property taxes for those 55 and older with no children in school. This bill (HB 207) adopts a flawed approach to public education funding. Public education is a public good beneficial to the entirety of NH’s citizenry and to NH’s economy, but this bill turns it into a service, whereby education taxation is simply a user fee. What is next? Single individuals or married couples with no children to also be exempted from education taxation? An exemption from paying local taxes to plow and maintain certain roads if you promise not to drive on them? The basic logic of HB 207 is deeply flawed, ignoring that public education has long been acknowledged to be broadly beneficial to everyone in our society. That’s why the framers of the NH Constitution acknowledged in 1784 the necessity to cherish and promote education as “essential to the preservation of a free government.”
In the coming weeks, AFT-NH hopes HB 207 will be dispensed with and voted ‘inexpedient to legislate.’ As for the upcoming week, a very important hearing will be held Tuesday morning before the Ways and Means Committee on HB 632, repealing the education tax credit. Under this program, NH public tax revenues are decreased by businesses and individuals who contribute to scholarship programs benefitting students in private and sectarian schools. Established a number of years ago, the program was essentially a harbinger of last session’s vain attempt to foist private school vouchers upon NH, using various subterfuges that amount to essentially a ‘money-laundering’ system to avoid the NH Constitution’s prohibition of public monies spent on private and sectarian schools. Repealing this private school scholarship tax credit will restore revenue to the State of NH to help fund all the underfunded programs ranging from providing for mental health of our citizens to handling the opioid crisis.
Teacher Renomination: The House Education Committee will be taking action on HB 226 which would reduce from 5 years to 3 years when teachers can gain continuing contract status. AFT-NH strongly supports this bill.
Labor: The foes of organized labor never stop. On Thursday, the House Labor Committee will hold hearings on “right to work for less” bill applicable to those working in the private sector. AFT-NH was proud to stand firm with a bipartisan coalition to reject similar legislation in 2017, and we hope this attempt to weaken organized labor will meet the same fate. The Labor Committee will also hold the first public hearing on Wednesday regarding HB 712, the House version of legislation establishing a family & medical leave insurance system in NH. The Senate held a well-attended and lengthy hearing on similar legislation last week, with most of those present testifying in support of the proposed program. Meanwhile, Governor Sununu continues his slippery and evasive attitude towards family & medical leave. He first supported it in 2017 but as the potential for enactment by the Legislature grew, the governor changed his tune and eventually he came out in opposition to a program that the vast majority of Granite State residents support. For those AFT-NH members with only limited access to family or medical leave to care for themselves or a loved one, HB 712 could be a godsend, as it will be for the thousands of working families across NH who currently lack any access to paid leave. The governor may call it a “vacation,” but for anyone caring for a sick child or dying parent, that is simply an unthinking insult. We expect better of our governor, and as we did in 2017-18, AFT-NH supports this legislation.
There is always a great deal going on “under the State House dome” in Concord, and this lengthy update does not even cover everything of interest or concern. As we move through February and certainly once we enter the month of March, the Senate and House will be meeting, debating and voting on hundreds of bills. So stay tuned and stay warm.