Sunday, May 27, 2018

NH Progressive Summit 2018

There's still time to sign up! See you there! 

The annual NH Progressive Summit provides space for new and veteran activists to come together and be inspired by one another as we collectively learn, train, strategize, and mobilize for the issue and electoral challenges and opportunities we face together. 

This year’s theme is “Resistance to Power.” We are a movement of ideas and action, and the last year has shown what we can achieve when we are focused and organized. We will continue to beat back the attacks on our health care and public education. We will fight for equal rights for immigrants and the LGBTQ community. We will support access to the full range of reproductive rights without stigma or shame. We will demand the clean air and water we all deserve. We will advance strong public safety laws. We will seek a local, inclusive economy that puts working families first. And we will take back our state and elections from powerful special interests and the politicians who aid them.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Dirty Little Secret

New Hampshire does things that other states do not. We’re the only state with a 424 member volunteer legislature. We’re the only state that funds our state park system with user fees. There’s a reason other states don’t do these things – they don’t work. 

NH is also the only state where people who have been civilly committed to the state psychiatric hospital can be transferred to the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) at the state men’s prison even if they haven’t been charged or convicted of a crime. If they are considered a danger to themselves or others, they can be transferred to the men’s prison, even if they’re women. Once there, the patients intermingle with the inmates.

The state prison is home to male inmates. The SPU is part of the prison. NH is the only state in the union that imprisons people with mental illness who have committed no crime; just because there is no place else secure enough for them.

This practice began 30 years ago. It was touted at the time as a temporary solution. Thirty years ago, the mental health system dismantled by Ronald Reagan and his acolytes. Institutions were emptied, with no planning for the now de-institutionalized patients. A month before Reagan was elected, President Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which proposed to continue the federal community mental health centers program, and funded federal grants. This was all trashed when Reagan took office. Meanwhile, the folks who had been institutionalized often wound up living on the street, with no supports or treatment.

In 1986, the NH Supreme Court ruled that putting people in the SPU was not a violation of their constitutional rights. It was all too easy to forget all about those folks. If there’s one thing that the legislature hates, it’s spending money. And so, the practice of putting non-criminals behind bars in the name of treatment was ignored for a couple of decades, while the legislature blithely kicked the can down the road.

In 2004, there was an audit, and in 2005 a House study committee. In 2010 there was another study committee. For some years, State Representative Renny Cushing has been filing legislation to try to end this practice, as he did again this year. A few weeks ago a story in Fosters quoted Speaker of the House Gene Chandler as saying that lawmakers weren’t familiar enough with the situation to speak about changing it. It’s only been going on for 30 years.

In that same Foster’s story Associate AG Anne Edwards claimed that patients aren’t treated like inmates at all. The patients have prison numbers, can’t use the phone, and visitors have to go through background checks. Nothing I have ever read or heard suggests that patients at SPU are not being treated like prisoners. They are locked in wire cages for “therapy sessions.”  They are civilly committed to a prison. If this were normal, if this were considered therapeutic, other states would be doing it. 

They don’t. Only NH does this. 

In Colorado, psychiatric patients in crisis can be held in a jail for 24 hours if there are no psychiatric beds available. Colorado is a big rural state, and that 24 hours began to turn into 48 hours, or more. Sheriff’s tried to have the hold time lengthened. The governor vetoed the bill. A task force was created to look at the problem, and it actually did – and that work led to change. It’s now against the law to hold anyone in a county jail for a mental health problem. A bill was passed to increase funding for community based mental health treatment. Much of the funding will come from the state’s marijuana tax.

The difference, of course, is that in Colorado there was law enforcement and legislative support for ending the barbaric practice of imprisoning the mentally ill. In NH, there is no support for change. NH is perfectly happy to continue to sweep the criminalization of the mentally ill under the rug.

It’s been our dirty little secret for a long time. Social media can be a force for good, and in the case of SPU it has been. Nancy West of, an online news site, got a grant to investigate the SPU, and has been covering it for some time. Those stories led to coverage in the mainstream NH media. A young man named Andrew Butler is currently incarcerated in the SPU, and his case is getting a lot of attention. The legislature is finally paying attention, and recently moved to require the Department of Corrections to have the SPU accredited as a behavioral prison unit.

This is not a solution; it’s a way of normalizing the practice of incarcerating the mentally ill, in the 21stcentury, in the state of New Hampshire, the seventh wealthiest state in the nation. Shame on us. 

Published as an op-ed in the May 25, 2018 edition of the Conway Daily Sun Newspaper

Edited to add this press release that the Treatment Advocacy Center sent to me. This is a snippet:

"New Hampshire's treatment of people with serious mental illnesses makes it a poster child for hypocrisy," Treatment Advocacy Center executive director John Snook added. "Instead of 'live free or die,' their credo should be 'go to prison and die'. The Governor and the Legislature need to fix this."
Using prevalence rates for schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder, the Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that there are 36,000 people in the Granite State with serious mental illnesses. In the event of a psychiatric crisis, however, there is virtually no place for that population to receive inpatient care. As of 2016, New Hampshire had a total of 158 state hospital beds, or less than 12 per 100,000 people, which falls far below the minimum standard of 50 beds per 100,000 people.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Vampire Vouchers

Senate Bill 193 is titled: “Establishing education freedom savings accounts for students”, and was filed in January of 2017. It sped quickly through the Senate, and moved to the House in March 2017. It stayed in the House till last week. The bill spent 10 months in the NH House Education Committee, and four months in House Finance. During those four months, there were two public hearings, and 13 committee work sessions. It may have whizzed through the Senate, but the House really worked on it. The majority of the Finance Committee recommended it be sent to Interim Study. A simple legislative rule of thumb: any bill that has “freedom” in the title is going to be bad. 

Despite the title, this is a school voucher bill. It would take taxpayer funds from the public schools, and launder them through a third party, to bypass the Constitutional prohibition against using taxpayer funds for religious education. The cash would leave the Freedom Laundry, and go to private schools, religious schools, or to homeschooling families.

This bill comes to us from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, where far right conservatives draft model legislation and pass it on to the ALEC representatives in the various states. ALEC ‘s model bill is called “The Education Savings Account Act.” (Look it up at  There are a number of NH legislators tied to ALEC. Senator John Reagan of Deerfield is on ALEC’s Health and Human Services Task Force. Senator Reagan is also the sponsor of this voucher bill. Governor Sununu loves this bill – it’s one of the centerpieces of his legislative agenda.

The bill claims it will help low income families to be able to afford private school or home schooling. The Freedom Laundry has little in the way of accountability built into it. Tax dollars should be publicly accountable, transparent dollars, not dollars siphoned off to someone who wants to keep their kid out of gummint schools so they can teach them what kind of gun Jesus carried when he rode a dinosaur. 

State Representative Neal Kurk from Weare chairs the House Finance Committee. Kurk is a solid conservative, usually beloved by his party for the parsimonious state budgets he compiles every two years. Long time readers may remember me mocking Neal Kurk for an opinion piece he co-wrote with Rep. Laurie Sanborn in 2013 on the dangers of expanded Medicaid, where they bemoaned the possibility that low income yacht dwellers would be mooching free health care. It will cause an income tax, they cried!  Another rule of thumb: if a policy helps people, it will create GOP cries about an income tax. If a policy is proven to hurt taxpayers, the silence is deafening. 

Neal Kurk did not support the bill. He did the math, and found that SB 193 would bleed $99 million from the public schools and jack up property taxes. The House voted to send the bill to interim study, in a roll call vote of 170-159. Speaker Chandler immediately gaveled the session to a close, before a motion to reconsider could be made, which would, if defeated, prevent the bill from coming back.

After an evening of brisk arm-twisting by the Governor and other ideologues, the bill came back the next day. The motion to reconsider was defeated. That was the end of that, or so it seemed.

Alas, nothing bad ever dies in the NH legislature. It comes back again and again, sometimes for decades. This only took a few hours. The Senate was in session far into the night, and they attached the vampire voucher bill to another education bill, as an amendment. In other words, the people pushing this bill (and the special interests behind it) are going to do any underhanded thing they can think of to jam it through. 

Senator Jeb Bradley justified this late-night chicanery in the Concord Monitor, as “an opportunity to allow the discussion to continue.” The Carroll County Republican delegation all voted to drain the public schools and increase your property taxes. The only exception was Karel Crawford, who was excused.

Republicans used to call themselves the party of fiscal responsibility. There is nothing fiscally responsible about this bill, as Neal Kurk pointed out, to the public displeasure of his party. Today’s NH GOP has no interest in listening to voters or doing what is best for the state. They have an ideological agenda, and those who refuse to march in lockstep will be vilified.

By the time you read this, the House will have voted to concur or not concur with the amended version of HB 1636, the bill that the voucher amendment was attached to. A week of strong-arming and threats might win over the remaining Republican representatives that can still think for themselves. Those legislators live in other counties. Be sure to ask your Carroll County Republican representatives why they want to raise your property taxes. 

UPDATE: The House voted on concurrence. Twice. The first vote was on a motion not to concur, and to ask for a committee of conference. The Carroll County delegation all voted for that, save for Rep. Karel Crawford who voted nay. The motion failed. 

The second vote was to just flat out non-concur. Two Carroll County Republicans voted not to concur; Representative Karel Crawford, and Representative William Marsh. (Last week Marsh voted for the voucher bill.) The motion carried. 

A third vote motion was made to reconsider, with the same amendments. This motion also failed. 

After 5 votes, the vampire voucher bill is finally done for the year. We can all look forward to seeing it come back next year - and those Republicans who didn't toe the party line can expect to be punished in the primary. 

published as an op-ed in the May 11 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper