NH House Speaker addresses Portsmouth

By Patrick McGoldrick
On February 11, 2014

The Portsmouth Public Library drew a sizeable crowd Saturday morning as New Hampshire residents gathered to hear the State House of Representatives Speaker Terie Norelli (D) address the state of the Democratic Party within the N.H. legislature.

Norelli spoke enthusiastically for half an hour, focusing broadly on building from the successes of the past year - lauding Republican support of the state budget - and trying to harness that bipartisan momentum moving forward on health care, infrastructure and family stability in the New Year. 

The discussion of Medicaid expansion appropriately kicked off the morning. The proposition is currently one of the largest expansions of a government entitlement program in New Hampshire history.

"I think there isn't any more urgent need in our state," Norelli said, "than to move forward with expanding Medicaid for vulnerable citizens in our state, the cost not to do so is just too great."

Referencing Governor Maggie Hassan's State of the State Address last week, Norelli voiced her satisfaction with the governor and the Republicans in the Senate, who have agreed on framework for Medicaid expansion, with a ready-to-sign bill expected by "mid-to-late March, for the Governor."

The bill in question (HB-544), voted 182-154 along party lines in the Democrat-controlled House this January, aims at expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Health Care Act. The expansion would effectively open the N.H. Medicaid program to $2.5 billion in federal grants over the next seven years. Had a bill been agreed upon prior to Jan. 1, the start of federal entitlements, N.H. could have reaped subsidies for over a month now. Norelli alluded to these lost entitlements by expressing urgency in the fact that N.H. is losing "$500,000 for every day that we haven't had it [Medicaid expansion]." 

For the vast remainder of the speech, Norelli was playing defense. 

Despite opening her address with an anecdote on intrastate teamwork, Norelli skirted her party's frustration with marked, neglected social programs in the 2014 budget, including developmental health and disabilities along with services for in-need children. Norelli blamed Republicans in the Senate for refusing to exercise any latitude in her push for social programs, of which she attested were easily fundable through back-of-the-budget cuts. 

"Often what the public doesn't appreciate," Norelli said, on balancing a congressional budget, "are these back of the budget cuts," where certain political action is funded only through a cut to another program, often found near the back of the budget. Moving forward, Norelli explained there is currently a $15 million budget surplus for the aforementioned entitlement expansions that the House and governor are trying to apportion effectively, while Republicans are erring on frugality in such economic sectors.

Speaker Norelli's final point was on the future of a stronger economy, "which begins with a strong family." Largely echoing President Barack Obama's rhetoric on strengthening American families through raising the minimum wage, Norelli added the House was also working to "raise the level of unemployment compensation" along with a specific bill to "prohibit discrimination in employment by using peoples' credit history." Norelli passionately described the Möbius-strip-like enterprise of trying to find a job to pay off debt, only to be denied that job because of existing bad debt, and thus collecting further debt. 

Obvious omissions from the speech included: gun control, casino and gambling legislation, and the national attention the bill concerning recreational marijuana (HB-492) has garnered after the House became the first legislative body to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana less than one month prior. When the room opened to questions, all these topics - amongst others - were broached.

A mother in the audience pleaded for Norelli to mobilize her party for comprehensive gun control legislation. Visibly upset, the mother said NH residents can only do so much and ultimately "we're relying on you," she said, "and it's distressing when the Democrats won't move it forward." 

Norelli responded by accusing Republicans in the House and Senate, along with gun-rights activists, for their vociferous lobbying against legislation favoring gun control.

"They were simply louder and more active," Norelli said of the gun activists.

The remainder of the questions met vague and inconclusive answers.

Casino and gambling legislation was said to be split through the Democratic House, and Norelli, speaking on behalf of the Democratic House, said her party "does not currently take a position on the matter." 

Continuing with politically mired legislative issues, the recreational marijuana bill (HB-492) entered the House Ways and Means Committee last week, where Norelli predicts it will stay for the remainder of the year due to the Committee's caseload.

"Regardless of what the Committee decides," Norelli said of HB-492's chances, "it will still have to go to the floor ... and this is one of those issues where people have strong convictions;" an oblique reference to anti-legalization Republican Senate members. 

Questions were promptly cut at 11 a.m.; at that time Norelli thanked those in attendance for their continued support and patience. 

The host of the event and vice chairwoman of the Portsmouth Democratic Committee, Laurie McCray, had the podium last, leaving the audience with a personal dictum: "Pay attention, be watchful and get involved."

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