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Focus turns to state politics
Social issues at forefront of House

01/26/12



The presidential primary just ended in New Hampshire, but the action at the Statehouse is already in full swing.
Without the need to pass a state budget this session, perhaps this is the session for the Republican-led House to tackle sometimes-dreaded social issues. And there are a number of measures and potential measures that would presumably get the Democratic base riled up.

Not only did the House pass a constitutional amendment to ban future efforts to create an income tax in New Hampshire; it also voted to prevent the state Department of Health and Human Services from contracting with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which, you might have heard, performs abortion — not that that’s all it does. That got some people’s attention.

Every time Republicans veered slightly off course last year ? that is, every time they considered or passed a bill that didn’t involve job creation, the economy or the state budget — Democrats and some Republicans cried foul, complaining that the House was focusing too much on social issues. Now economic indicators are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, and lawmakers have a year free from drafting, proposing and passing a state budget.

So maybe social issues, and some other hot-button issues, will get a little more attention this session. It looks like it, as legislators took on a doozy last week.

Lawmakers passed House Bill 228 last week with a vote of 207-147. The measure prohibits the state from contracting with any organization that provides abortion services. It also prohibits the use of public funds for abortion services. Planned Parenthood officials have said the organization is already prohibited from using public funds for abortions, while anti-abortion officials say public funds indirectly fund abortions, by freeing up money for abortions. The Senate would take this bill up next.


Pick your argument

In explaining the measure, House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, took the approach that taxpayers simply shouldn’t be paying for abortions.

“The state should be sending a clear message that taxpayers should not be funding abortions, and this bill does just that,” O’Brien said in a statement. “The majority of people agree that regardless of individual beliefs taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the largest abortion provider in America when so many are diametrically religiously and morally opposed to the practice of abortions.”

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, took a more economic approach, as he focused on budget cuts. He said in these tough economic and budgetary times, taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund anything that is capable of funding itself. Bettencourt said that in 2009 Planned Parenthood reported a profit of $21.7 million. In 2010, the organization posted a profit of $5.6 million. He also pointed out that Planned Parenthood’s CEO made three times the salary of Gov. John Lynch.

“The organization also spent nearly $700,000 on public affairs, over $151,000 on lobbying legislators and almost $450,000 on ‘improving their branding,’” Bettencourt said in a statement.“They even had enough money to transfer more than $200,000 over to their Political Action Committee.”


Wait for it: ‘Extremist’

Democrats will say that the “extremist” House leadership is pivoting from issues like the economy and job creation to focus on social issues.

Planned Parenthood officials were quick to point out that it is the largest provider of reproductive health care services in the state, as it serves more than 50 percent of patients who access family planning and related health care services. That adds up to a lot more than just abortion services.

“This legislation puts at risk basic access to cost-effective, preventive services such as cancer screenings, breast exams, access to birth control and other disease prevention services,” said Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser with PPNNE.

The House Health and Human Services Committee recommended 12-5 that the House not pass the legislation.
“New Hampshire has a 40-year bipartisan history of supporting publicly funded family planning services and working to reduce abortion by ensuring access to birth control, cancer screening and preventive care,” Frizzell said. “The actions of Republican leaders in the New Hampshire House abandon this tradition and pose dangerous threats to women’s health.”


Another potential blow

The income tax ban came with little warning, but it’s not necessarily surprising that lawmakers are tackling this issue. For one, there’s plenty of support for the ban in the House, and even if individual lawmakers harbor some hesitation on the matter, no one ? certainly no Republican ? wants to get caught voting against this. The fight in the Senate could be just as one-sided.

For those who have hoped for an income tax as the answer to the state’s budget prayers, this is a major blow, not that anyone is going to say it now.

Bettencourt said the measure is a critical safeguard against future irresponsible spending. He lashed out at Democrats for raising or enacting 100 taxes and fees, “spending New Hampshire to the brink of an income and/or sales tax.”

The possibility of an income tax hasn’t really been on the front burner in recent years. Since the income tax ban would be a constitutional amendment, it requires a three-fifths vote of the House, meaning with 397 members, 239 legislators must vote to support the measure, and they did. Actually 257 legislators voted for the measure. It now goes to the state Senate. If it passes the Senate, the proposal goes onto a state ballot and must be approved by a two-thirds majority.


Clock is ticking

Republicans aren’t likely to keep big majorities like this for long. They know it. They also probably know, or at least they can feel fairly confident, that things aren’t going to swing too dramatically back to Democrats in elections later this year.

Given that the majorities in the House and Senate are all but assured to shrink at least somewhat for the GOP, Republican leaders probably feel like it’s now or never. And there’s a big one on the horizon: a bill to repeal same-sex marriage legislation. That bill’s passage is hardly a sure thing. But Republicans aren’t basing this session on that measure either.

O’Brien and company seem to be willing to add up as many victories as possible. That could minimize a potential defeat on the same-sex marriage repeal bill. They’ll still have plenty to point to in trying to energize their base come elections later this fall. It’s just that along the way, Democrats are likely to only get more energized as the year goes on.






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