Nine days ago, you thought you woke up in a new year and a new decade. A fresh start! A chance to leave the past behind and venture into a bold new future of limitless possibilities!
Sorry, it’s Groundhog Day and you’re Bill Murray.
Welcome to Week 54 of 2019.
The Legislature opened its session on Wednesday by taking up bills that remain from the previous year, as is its custom. Even with hundreds of leftover bills awaiting disposal, a majority party can set the agenda and tone for a new year on the first days of a session.
The message coming from Concord this week was crystal clear: 2020 is going to be 2019 all over again.
The last legislative session was defined by its clashes between the governor and the Democratic majority in the Legislature over the imposition of new costs on employers and consumers, from business tax increases to energy price hikes to costly employer regulations such as mandatory paid leave and large minimum wage increases.
The House this week signaled that Democrats intend to make the 2020 elections about all of these same issues. They are determined to impose through the legislative process new financial burdens on employers and consumers.
Of course, they don’t view these issues this way. They would say they’re protecting Granite Staters from businesses that refuse to do the morally right thing. That philosophical difference drives these two competing agendas and will shape the 2020 state elections.
Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu famously vetoed 57 bills, including many of the Democrats’ top priorities. This week was a parade of zombie bills killed by the governor but reincarnated and sent staggering back out by legislators.
The House this week passed a mandatory paid family leave plan like the one Gov. Sununu vetoed last year. It was no accident that paid family leave was Senate Bill 1 in 2019 and a top item for the opening of the 2020 session.
Like last year’s plan, this one would create a government-run family leave program and pay for it by imposing a tax of 0.5% on wages. Also like last year, the Department of Employment Security estimated the cost to be $168.6 million a year.
Also returning from the dead was the minimum wage increase. But this time the zombie returned with new weaponry. The bill passed this week would more than double the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. The version that passed last year raised it to $12 an hour.
A representative who argued for letting the market decide wage rates was shouted down and the Speaker of the House had to restore order. The prevailing view was that greedy employers must be made to pay morally correct wages.
But the public sector pays less than $15 an hour too. The bill’s fiscal note states that 224 state employees currently earn less than $12 an hour, the minimum that would kick in this year were the bill to become law. By forcing government wages higher, the bill would put upward pressure on taxes.
The bill goes even further by allowing municipalities to establish minimums higher than the state’s. (Look out, Portsmouth and Hanover restaurants.) Naturally, no city could set a minimum lower than the one passed by the Legislature. So Berlin, Claremont, and Charlestown would have to find the money to pay all of their employees $15 an hour too. Those greedy plutocrats.
Imposing more employer costs that would be passed on to consumers, the House approved a plastic bag ban, also a zombie from last year, though not one vetoed by the governor. The bill’s summary states: “This bill requires businesses to charge customers for single-use bags.”
But it does more. It even regulates the composition of paper bags that might be offered in place of plastic ones. “Paper bags shall be made of recycled paper defined as 100 percent recyclable containing a minimum of 40 percent post-consumer recycled materials,” the bill asserts. “The bag shall be visibly labeled as ‘made from recycled materials’ and ‘recyclable and reusable.’”
Legislators who made a big show of trying to subsidize New Hampshire’s forest products industry last year just passed a bill to reduce demand for paper bags made with fresh-cut trees. Politics is strange.
It’s 2020 (allegedly), and this is how the legislative session began, with zombie bills and rehashed debates from 2019. It’s not likely to change much between now and November. So cue up Old Town Road and put on your House Stark T-shirt. This session is going to feel like a remake no one asked for but studios just couldn’t resist forcing on everyone.