Anti-abortion advocates nearly hijacked legislation requiring infant screenings for congenital heart defects before the Republican-controlled House reconsidered its action yesterday and passed the bill without changes.
Senate Bill 348 adds the pulse oximetry test to the medical screenings required for newborns in New Hampshire. The bill is to be known as “Parker’s Law,” named after 3-year-old Parker Bolton of Pittsfield who was born with a congenital heart defect but, thanks to early detection, has a 60 percent chance of living past the age of 5 following three open-heart surgeries.
Yesterday, an amendment was tacked onto the bill to prevent abortions after 20 weeks, a move by representatives upset that the Senate had decided against passing their original anti-abortion legislation, which was opposed by the New Hampshire Medical Society, in favor of further study. Rep. Robert Willette, the Milford Republican who sponsored the amendment, said “expert people have stated that immense pain happens to unborn children after nine weeks.”
The House narrowly approved the amendment to the bill on a 137-133 vote, virtually assuring that both efforts would die in the Senate. But then Concord Republican Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker rose to ask the House to reconsider its vote.
Blankenbeker, who had voted in favor of the amendment, said “for those of us that are pro-life, it’s a very difficult choice.”
“The amendment’s going to kill the bill and that’s the bottom line,” Blankenbeker said. “We need this bill to go through. We’re in a situation now where we either save the baby in utero and not protect the baby after birth, or not go far enough for the baby in utero and protect the baby after birth.”
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, said the House was again overreaching despite lessons it should have learned from previous legislative efforts. The amendment amounted to “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.
“You’re playing a game of chicken and I don’t think you’re going to win this game,” Vaillancourt said. “So if you want to save the underlying thing, you should probably vote to reconsider.”
Willette spoke against the reconsideration.
“We just said what we wanted,” Willette said. “I think reconsidering is just a waste of time.”
But the House had been swayed. The amendment failed on a 183-95 vote the second time around, and the bill will likely end up on Gov. John Lynch’s desk in short order to become “Parker’s Law.”
That wasn’t the only example of a last-minute amendment on the final day for the House to act on this year’s Senate bills (and vice versa).
On Senate Bill 203, an extensive revision of state laws governing limited liability companies written by the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, Easton Republican Rep. Greg Sorg tried to get in an amendment regarding the escrow accounts used by attorneys to hold their clients’ money.
Sorg said he is opposed to a state Supreme Court ruling requiring him to deposit escrow funds into an account managed by the New Hampshire Bar Foundation to earn interest spent on charitable ventures approved by the court.
“For the Supreme Court to interpret its authority to say that I have to use my escrow account to generate revenue for the court to send to the Bar Foundation so it can spend on all these good programs, what are the limits of its authority over me?” Sorg asked. “Is it going to tell me what time to go to bed, button up my overcoat when the wind blows free and not get a pain in my tum-tum?”
A bill addressing Sorg’s complaint had passed the House by a veto-proof majority in March but was killed Wednesday in the Senate. Yesterday, the House decided not to press the issue.
“SB 203 is one of the two highest priority bills in the business community this year,” said Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat. “We’ve been assured that this bill will be killed in the Senate with that amendment on it. . . . A vote to play games with this bill is a vote against our business community.”
Sorg’s amendment failed 159-125. The House passed the rewrite of LLC law over the objections of Chichester Republican Rep. Brandon Giuda, who argued current statutes are working well and the changes will have “unintended consequences” for small businesses. Giuda said the 76-page bill is confusing and was subject to only a one-hour work session in committee.
Managed care fix
The most contentious amendment yesterday required two attempts to suspend House rules in order to pass it.
Writing the state budget last year, lawmakers neglected to include language ensuring that existing community mental health organizations would not have monopolies in certain areas of the state when implementing the state’s new Medicaid managed care program, said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican.
“Sometimes in the course of legislation, balls get dropped,” said Kurk, who introduced the language as an amendment to a bill streamlining the process for businesses to obtain multiple permits and applications from the Department of Environmental Services.
House Speaker Bill O’Brien ruled the amendment was non-germane, requiring a two thirds vote to suspend the rules in order to take it up. That’s when things got interesting – or, at least, tedious.
Republicans said the change was just a technical fix requested at the last minute by the Department of Health and Human Services, but Democrats said it was a significant policy difference that had not been vetted by a committee.
“Just suspending the rules at the whim of the majority is a miscarriage of justice,” said Rep. Gary Richardson, the Democratic floor leader from Hopkinton. Almy, the Lebanon Democrat, argued the new language “has the ability to destroy our community mental health centers.”
House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Republican from Salem, said without the amendment the state would be unable to realize $16 million in savings anticipated in the two-year budget from implementing managed care. Not passing the amendment would be “highly fiscally irresponsible,” Bettencourt said, and called on lawmakers to “put aside the histrionics” and suspend the rules.
The first vote, 181-94, failed to show a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules. The suspension of the rules was then brought up a second time on reconsideration, and the two-thirds margin was achieved with only Republicans voting in favor. Kurk’s amendment was then passed.
During the hour needed to sort everything out, maybe the most notable moment was Vaillancourt, the Manchester Republican, defending O’Brien when Democrats challenged his ruling on a procedural matter. An outspoken critic of O’Brien, Vaillancourt made national headlines Tuesday when he uttered “Sieg Heil” after clashing with the speaker on the House floor.
“Even if you don’t like the ruling, I believe the speaker has ruled correctly,” Vaillancourt said. “I agree that we should uphold the speaker in this case.”