CONCORD — N.H. Senate Democrats outlined their legislative priorities as the new majority in power Wednesday afternoon, focusing on economic security and health care.
Now that Democrats are back in the majority in the Senate — along with the House and Executive Council — the caucus will try to enact bread-and-butter promises from the campaign trail, such as paid family leave and workforce development, as well as to bring longstanding proposals over the finish line, such as establishing a state minimum wage.
Twelve of the 14 Senate Democrats attended Wednesday’s news conference at the Legislative Office Building across from the Statehouse. The chamber has 24 members in total, with the majority party controlling committee chairmanships, parliamentary rules and other procedures.
While the “Granite State Opportunity Plan” presented Wednesday is broad in scope, Senate Democratic leadership is wary of the caucus taking an official position on issues such as raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 or supporting recreational marijuana.
When asked by The Sentinel to go into detail on both issues, Senate Majority Leader Donna Soucy said that while Democrats have proposed bills to raise the tobacco age and legalize pot, those bills do not have the support of the caucus yet.
In a follow-up question on what a state minimum wage figure would be, the Manchester Democrat said the latest iteration of the seven-year-old proposal does not have a final dollar amount yet.
Without a state minimum wage, New Hampshire businesses follow the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, with exemptions for tipped employees.
“So we don’t have an ultimate target yet,” Soucy said. “We’re still working on the final details. What I will tell you is that New Hampshire was one of the first states to enact a minimum wage, and we are going to rightfully restore New Hampshire’s minimum wage, and we’re also going to have a component that will allow for a sliding scale for those businesses that offer other benefits. They would not have to pay as high of an amount if they’re offering paid sick leave, for example.”
Several of the policies outlined Wednesday will be shepherded along by Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, who is the new chairman of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.
Kahn said that in his committee, finding ways to get high school graduates into the workforce sooner will be a major priority.
Kahn’s bill proposal would establish a career and technical education credential that school districts could develop to help high-schoolers get college credit and job-training experience.
This legislation would also address retention of young adults in New Hampshire, Kahn said, which is one of the larger long-term challenges to the state as its elderly population dwarfs that of millennials.
Ideally, according to Kahn, the first high-schoolers to have a chance at getting the credential would be in the class of 2023.
Kahn’s committee will also explore the best practices for workforce retraining, looking at studies of industries such as health care, hospitality and advanced manufacturing as fields that unemployed and underemployed Granite Staters can transition into.
In those professions, there is a need for additional labor in New Hampshire, but often a long delay between vacancies opening and being filled, Kahn said.
Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, chairman of the chamber’s influential Ways and Means Committee, held court for much of Wednesday’s news conference.
Regarding the labor shortage, Feltes said that shoring up the Granite State’s workforce by filling vacancies and reducing families’ dependence on cobbling together part-time jobs with no benefits is one of the top priorities of the caucus.
“The best way we can immunize New Hampshire from a possible downturn in the national economy is making sure that our businesses have the workers they need right now, so that our businesses can continue to thrive,” Feltes said.
On paid family and medical leave, Feltes said proposed legislation would include a bidding process for an insurer to provide policies at the lowest cost to the state. Businesses could opt out of the program if they find other ways to compensate and protect employees for taking time off for medical reasons.
Senate Democrats said they would also like to suspend 2018 business tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and use the increased revenue to provide property tax relief.
The N.H. GOP did not issue a coordinated response to the Senate Democrats’ agenda Wednesday, instead focusing much of the day on social media opposing a rule change passed by the Democratic majority in the N.H. House banning members from carrying guns and other deadly weapons in the House gallery, anteroom and chamber.
State Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, was caught up in other business during the Democrats’ news conference, but said she is willing to work with them on paid family leave as long as it does not burden taxpayers, and will keep an open mind on other issues.
However, Ward said legalizing recreational marijuana is a non-starter for her.
“I have read enough and have heard enough about the detrimental effects (of marijuana) on the young brain, and that concerns me,” Ward said. “Because I think, no matter what you look at it, some of the younger people are going to get a hold of it, and I don’t think that’s a good idea, especially if it’s going to affect their mental capacity later on in life.”
Entering her second term, Ward said the job does not feel much different now that her party is in the minority.
“It will be the same job to me,” Ward said.