Thursday, January 24, 2013

Solutions in Search of Problems

The new legislative session is underway at the People’s House in Concord. The last election changed the composition of the NH House, and the difference can be felt as one walks down the hallways. The last legislature was grim and angry.  The halls feel a little lighter this year, and legislators can be seen smiling and sometimes even laughing. 

The legislation that our solons are wading through is another matter entirely. The minority party appears to have decided at some point to gum up the works with bills that aren’t likely to go anywhere. 

Last week, the Election Law Committee heard testimony on HB 143, which would return straight ticket voting to our NH ballots. As voters will recall, prior to 2007, at the top of each ballot was a box one could check off to vote a straight party ticket. There was no need to read the ballot, or do any research into candidates – one could vote on the basis of party affiliation alone. There are members of the minority party who would like to return to that system. This bill is sponsored by GOP Representatives LeBrun, Notter, Peterson, and Rice. 

The testimony consisted of a great deal of concern for voter convenience. Apparently having to read down an entire ballot and fill in all the little ovals is exhausting to the voters. Representative Rice spoke for the sponsors. Rep. Moody from the committee asked him what would happen if someone checked the straight ticket box, and then went down the ballot and voted for a candidate from the other party. He didn’t know. Representative LeBrun handed him a copy of the bill, and did some explaining to him. Twice. Apparently it would not cancel out the vote. Rice compared voting to buying a refrigerator at Home Depot. One gets the basic package, but can choose options.

Representative Peter Schmidt spoke in opposition to the bill. He said that convenience to voters should not be a determining factor in how we vote, that voters should know whom they are voting for. Schmidt reminded those present of the elections in 2010, where so many voted on the basis of party affiliation, and later had cause to regret some of their votes. (Martin Harty, anyone?) 

Convenience was the word of the day, and Rep. Schmidt was not swayed by it. When committee member Rep. Marston stated that as a town moderator he’d often heard from voters of their desire for convenience, Schmidt responded, “Why not send someone to their house with a ballot and a pen and let them vote in bed?” 
This bill does nothing to move NH forward into the future, or solve any of our very real and present problems. It does give insight into the minority party fears that the massive gerrymandering they did last session may not be enough to help them win elections.  It also shows that they have low expectations of both voters and their candidates. GOP voters apparently aren’t smart enough to read and fill in an entire ballot, and their candidates need to be protected from the need to stand up to scrutiny and research. 

HB 121 was heard this week by the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee. This bill is sponsored by Representatives LeBrun and Notter. 

HB 121 requires drug testing for all TANF recipients. TANF is the acronym for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. We used to call it “welfare.” TANF benefits are limited to 60 months, over the course of a lifetime. The average time a person stays on TANF is 19 months. It is a welfare to work program. This bill perpetuates the stereotype that all poor people are drug users. There is no evidence to back up, as other states that have enacted similar laws have discovered. The bill would require the TANF recipient to pay for the test. They would be reimbursed later on if they passed the test.  Their TANF benefits are outstripped already by the cost of housing, utilities and food. This is just another way of demonizing them. 

If a person failed the test, they would lose their benefits for a year, at which time they could apply again. Their children would be able to continue to get benefits that would be handled by a third party, once that person passed the drug testing. The bill doesn’t specify who pays for their test. The bill doesn’t specify what kind of testing will be done. Rep. LeBrun became a little grumpy during his testimony, because there were so many questions he was unable to answer. “No bill is perfect” became his refrain. 

Rep. French from the committee asked Rep. LeBrun if the intent was to identify a person who needs help, or ensure they don’t get welfare? LeBrun answered, “We want to see them get the help they need.” The bill specifies that the state will not be paying for that help, though they will give the person who has just lost TANF benefits a list of treatment professionals in their area. No word on how that treatment will be procured by someone with no money. One can’t properly call this help. 

Deb Shorter, a former caseworker, was present to testify in favor of the bill. She offered anecdotal evidence about TANF recipients. In her opinion many TANF recipients are on drugs. When asked for solid numbers by a committee member, she said she isn’t a statistician. She is, however, an author, as she proudly reminded everyone several times, and kept a copy of her book on the table where she sat while giving testimony. The self-published book is called “An Eye into Welfare,” and from the excerpts available online, appears to be long on anecdote and short on verifiable fact. 

Attorney Ann Rice, from the state’s Attorney General’s office was on hand to oppose the bill. The constitutionality of this bill would be challenged, she said. Other states with similar laws are currently engaged in litigation. 

Other attorneys made similar arguments. This is a bill that guarantees litigation, expensive litigation that the taxpayers of our state will foot the bill for. DHHS will have increased costs. There will need to be people who monitor the taking of the samples, monitor the samples themselves, as well as their storage and delivery.  It seems likely that the cost will be higher than any potential savings. There are also issues of medical privacy that the bill doesn’t address. 

It’s a poorly written bill that stands little chance of going anywhere. It begs at least two questions: why do Representatives LeBrun and Notter have so little respect for their colleagues that they would waste their time on a do-nothing bill? And why do they feel justified in thumbing their noses at NH taxpayers? 

© 2013 sbruce
Published as an op-ed in the January 25, 2013 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper. 


Anonymous said...

You forgot to include HB 135 to overturn a provision of law which has never actually been used.

susanthe said...

Well, anonymous, I only wrote about hearings I actually attended.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed as always your observations Susan and found it rather interesting that the hallways are filled with an air quite different from that of the previous "occupiers". This is rather telling. And what it tells me anyway, is that individuals such as Notter and LeBrun have personal agenda's that are exclusionary and anti-social. These are very possibly individuals who spend far too time on Limbaugh and faux, villifying and denouncing individuals they have never met and scenarios that are both generalizations and stereotyping. Rather than work for solutions, they look to accuse,denounce and reprimand. Rather than help and true progress they look for petty battling and pitting people against one another. Shame on them for their small minded and uneduated behavior. We don't need and shouldn't want legislators such as these. We are supposed to be better.