By Garry Rayno, for InDepthNH.org

CONCORD — Bills to create a dental benefit for adults on Medicaid, protective orders for vulnerable adults, and making technical changes requested by state agencies were vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu Tuesday.

The vetoes of the protective orders and adding adult dental benefits to the Medicaid program were expected, but the bill of changes requested by state agencies was not.

In vetoing House Bill 1234, Sununu blamed the House’s Democratic leadership, saying, “Had they worked across the aisle as promised, omnibus bills like this one would have been able to be properly vetted.”

Senators included about 40 separate bills into an omnibus bill dealing with changes state agencies requested for various programs after House Republicans refused to change deadlines that had expired when legislative action was suspended by the coronavirus pandemic.

House Republicans attempted to exchange support for the rule changes in return for a bill to block business tax rate hikes that could have gone into effect if state revenues were 6 percent or more below the budget plan, but Democrats did not agree.

Without Republican support, every bill the House had yet to act on as well as Senate approved bills they had not acted on, would have needed a two-thirds majority to pass, which essentially killed all outstanding bills in the House.

Sununu objected to the process saying many of the bills had not been vetted.

“While I understand the unusual and unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely unfortunate that the legislature decided to manage their workload by merging nearly 40 previously separate pieces of legislation into this one 77-page omnibus bill,” Sununu wrote in his veto message. “Despite the pandemic, it is important to remember that this bill is the byproduct of House leadership’s unwillingness to work with the entire body to develop a plan to move forward with its session.”

But Senate President Donna Soucy took issue with his statement saying lawmakers worked hard to salvage as much essential legislation as they could.

“Despite a global pandemic, the Legislature worked hard to complete the people’s work and to ensure public transparency throughout the entirety of our remote legislative activities. Every bill passed – including HB 1234 – was printed in the Senate calendar, had a public hearing and committee vote, and was voted on by the full Senate and House,” Soucy said. “For the governor to suggest otherwise is inaccurate and frankly offensive. HB 1234 was not a partisan bill; its contents were administrative bills essential to continuity of government.”

She noted the veto strikes down requests from Sununu’s department heads as well as bills sponsored by Republican legislative leaders like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, and House and Senate Republican leaders Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, and Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry.

“While the issues this bill encompassed were not political, they were incredibly important to constituents, state agencies, and New Hampshire’s economy,” Soucy said. “Governor Sununu’s inclination to veto rather than engage in the legislative process has today thwarted critical efforts to increase sales opportunities for New Hampshire farmers, expand sports betting opportunities for New Hampshire cities, and expand renewable energy capacity.”

But Hinch defended the veto saying the bill is a prime example of what went wrong with the legislative process this session as the House never had a chance to vet the 20 Senate bills in the package.

He called the process rushed, heavy-handed and mismanaged.

“In March, the House passed a rule ensuring bipartisan cooperation would not be pushed aside in the event of a pandemic, but unfortunately House Democrats kept Republicans in the dark for months,” Hinch said. “HB 1234 sets a terrible precedent for future legislatures by saying one body and party can be denied a seat at the table, and I commend Gov. Sununu for vetoing this bill.”

But House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey said Sununu has already signed a number of omnibus bills created in the same manner as he criticized.

“It is telling that after HB 1234 received unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate, Gov. Sununu chose to align himself with the House Republicans who tried to exploit COVID-19 to prevent the legislature from working,” Ley said. “During this pandemic, Gov. Sununu has grown more partisan at a time when Granite Staters are looking for nonpartisan leadership.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House on 198-129 vote, not enough for a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

Sununu also vetoed House Bill 250 which would have established a dental benefit for adults on Medicaid. The state program currently provides a dental benefit for children.

Legislators had included a $2 million pilot program to expand dental coverage for adults while a study would be done on how best to implement the program and develop projected costs, but it was not included in the final budget negotiated by legislative leaders and Sununu after he vetoed the budget package.

The legislature approved House Bill 4, which directs the Department of Health and Human Service to prepare a plan to institute adult benefits, which Sununu signed last year.

In his veto message, he says he approves the concept but cannot support the $11 million price tag with the state facing historic revenue shortfalls.

“Working with state agencies and the Legislature, we must begin the process of making the hard choices with our limited resources,” Sununu said. “I cannot support adding this $11 million a year General Fund expense for a new service that would necessitate cutting $11 million in existing services.”

The Health and Human Services Department estimated an adult benefit program would cost between $6 million and $11 million.

Bill supporter Sen. Senator Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said the program would save the state money in emergency room visits alone.

“There is irrefutable data that supports the economic and social benefits of preventative dental care,” Rosenwald said. “Particularly as New Hampshire faces a workforce shortage, vetoing a bill that would lead to increased employability, financial security, and would save the state money in emergency care costs is illogical and irresponsible.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 19-5 vote, and the House 205-124, not enough for an override.

Sununu also vetoed House Bill 1660 which would establish protective orders for vulnerable adults to shield them from abuse, exploitation, and neglect.

He said the bill creates confusion for victims of domestic violence and may lead to less protections than they currently have.

The governor said his office has worked with many of the stakeholders to try to reach a compromise on the bill without resolution.

Sununu said the bill is similar to one he vetoed last year and some of those concerns have been addressed, but it includes a worksheet for the victim to fill out which is the “last thing a victim of domestic violence needs to be dealing with.”

The bill also would violate constitutional rights such as the right to possess firearms, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizures, and self-incrimination, and equal protection under the law.

“These concerns were raised repeatedly in the work my office engaged in with legislators and advocates,” Sununu said. “Unfortunately, our attempts to find a compromise were rejected.”

But bill supporters said with the exception of self-neglect, financial exploitation makes up the highest percentage of reports to the Bureau of Elderly Affairs and Adult Services.

“Every Granite Stater should be able to age with dignity and live free from abuse. Governor Sununu’s veto of HB 1660 means that vulnerable adults will not be afforded certain protections they deserve,” said Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst.

“HB 1660 was the result of a collaborative process with the Senior Law Project at NH Legal Assistance, AARP, Alzheimer’s Association, and the Disability Rights Center and had been heavily vetted to ensure that it did not infringe on important rights and protections of others. This legislation could have given our most vulnerable adult population a mechanism to adequately protect themselves; instead, they remain defenseless.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 14-10 vote, and the House 206-144, not enough for an override.

Veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. He may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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