New Hampshire Statehouse leaders lay out 2020 priorities

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Both Democratic and Republican leaders in the New Hampshire Legislature say they want to protect and build upon the state’s economic success. But their priorities for the upcoming session show sharp differences in how to achieve those goals.

Democrats hold majorities in both the House and Senate, but as they found out last year, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s fondness for vetoes means any progress they make could be abruptly halted. Still, majority leaders in both chambers said they will continue to focus on key areas including enacting and raising the minimum wage, creating a paid family and medical leave program and expanding renewable energy.

“In addition, we want to continue to build on the economy, looking at issues such as the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs, working on increasing more direct scholarships for New Hampshire students attending community and state universities and looking at debt relief,” Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said in an interview Tuesday. “And then also some legislation to address the impact of climate change.”

On the minimum wage, New Hampshire defaults to the federal minimum of $7.25. Sununu vetoed a bill in August that would have created a state minimum wage of $10 this year and $12 in 2022. But with the minimum going up in three other New England states as of Jan. 1, Soucy believes Democrats will have a better shot this year.

“I really think the optics are poor in a state that is trying to build on its economy and attract new workers and younger people,” she said. “Being surrounded by states that are at least $3 more on their minimum wage puts us at a disadvantage.”

Democrats also will try again to pass their paid family and medical leave program, which Republicans oppose because one of its funding options for businesses was a payroll deduction they say amounts to an income tax.

“We still think this is a good policy. In fact, we know this is a good policy,” said House Majority Leader Douglas Ley, D-Jaffrey. “The governor’s proposal is extremely limited and does not do for the people of New Hampshire what ours does, which is provide relief that people so desperately need.”

Sununu is backing a new family leave proposal sponsored by Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, that would be voluntary for businesses. To save costs, participants could take time off to care for a sick family member but not to tend to their own medical conditions. Supporters say most companies already offer short term disability coverage, so including such coverage under family and medical leave would be duplicative. Bradley said he hopes both sides will negotiate an acceptable solution.

“We’ll see what happens on that. I’m not holding my breath, but stranger things have happened,” he said.

Bradley sounded slightly more optimistic that a new version of an energy bill Sununu vetoed would succeed. The original bill would have increased the state’s cap on net-metered solar projects from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts.

“With the new year, I’m looking forward to sitting down with his folks and seeing if that could be worked out,” he said.

Asked about his priorities for the new year, House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, focused on blocking Democrats.

“Like we didn’t see enough extreme legislation from Democrats in 2019, we will be spending at least two days to kick off our new legislative session dealing with even more,” he said in an e-mail, characterizing the family leave bill as an income tax and a bill related to protective orders for vulnerable adults as a “gun confiscation bill.”

“Mark my word, Republicans will remain united against these bills and their radical agenda next week and all next year. No one should underestimate a united Republican Caucus,” he said.

The House will be in session Wednesday and Thursday, while the Senate meets Wednesday.