State Budget Negotiations Pose Political Test for Hassan

Jun 15, 2015

State budgets contain multitudes: billions of dollar signs, thousands of policy decisions, and almost as many political calculations. For any governor, the budget is likely to be the single biggest political test in his or her two-year term. For Gov. Maggie Hassan, this year’s budget poses a particular challenge: how to get a product she likes, or can at least claim to like, from an all-Republican legislature while heading into a big election year. 

When the state Senate adopted its budget, Gov. Hassan was quick with some highly qualified praise. On the bright side, she called the Senate's plan “an improvement over the House version.” On the not so bright side, she called it “unbalanced” and said it “could hurt families.” The governor then laid down a marker: to be acceptable, state budgets need to be bipartisan.

“Any budget that relies only on the votes of one party has not, so far, shown itself to meet the expectations of the people of New Hampshire or the needs of our businesses and our economy," she said.

The budget now in effect, passed two years ago during the governor’s first term, did in fact have the broad cross-party support she says she so prizes. But it came at a rare time when the Legislature was divided – Democrats ran the House; Republicans led the Senate. Finding other examples of bipartisan budgets is tough.  Concord Democrat Mary Jane Wallner has served in the New Hampshire House since 1981:

“We have in the past done it.”

-But other than two years ago?

“Well, I think maybe there was a year, I can’t remember exactly which year it was when Governor Shaheen was governor, but it is rare."

Budget votes have tended to be partisan affairs in recent years in the state Legislature. The 2009 tally was typical in this regard. That year, 91 percent of House Democrats voted in favor of the budget proposal, while 98 percent of House Republicans voted against it. The outcome broke along similar party lines in the Senate, where now-Gov. Maggie Hassan served as majority leader at the time.
Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

The budget vote of two years ago, however, was a rare occasion of bipartisan unity. Nearly every Democrat and an overwhelming number of Republicans supported that year's budget proposal. Gov. Hassan has pointed to that 2013 vote as a standard of success for all budget votes.
Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

One-party budgets have been the norm in Concord, regardless of which party is in control. It was certainly the case when Gov. Hassan was Senate majority leader, which is one reason some Republicans consider her talk of bipartisan compromise to be fighting words.

“She never has to pay for her ridiculous comments and I wish she would," says 15-term Kingston state Rep. Ken Weyler. Like plenty in the GOP, Weyler remains frustrated Hassan claimed political credit for the current budget, even though it was crafted mostly by Republicans in the Senate.

“She was condemning it one day, and congratulating herself for passing it the next day, and it was the same budget,” said Weyler.

Either way, that budget’s bipartisan flavor – it cleared the Senate 24-0 – helped Hassan win reelection. And her next campaign, be it for governor or U.S. Senate, hangs over the present negotiations. Hassan has said she’ll share her plans for 2016 when this budget is put to bed. What’s already clear, however, is that Republicans aren’t eager to have the process help Hassan again.

Indiana-based Impact America Action is spending $1 million on TV ads attacking Hassan's fiscal judgment to coincide with budget negotiations. The New Hampshire Republican Party, meanwhile, is taking aim with a "shutdown clock," suggesting that state functions will grind to a halt if Hassan doesn’t strike a deal with Republicans by July 1.  GOP leaders in the State House moved fast to discredit that idea. But that doesn’t mean Republicans plan to send Hassan a budget she’ll much like.  

House Finance Committee Chairman Neal Kurk is leading the budget talks. He kicked things off Friday afternoon with a telling observation: Neither chamber’s budget extends Medicaid expansion and neither includes a pay raise for state workers.

"Those are commonalities that I think are important and which will facilitate our coming to a mutual agreement," Kurk said.

But not, perhaps, agreement with the governor. Medicaid expansion and the state worker pay raise are among her top priorities. She also wants to undo GOP business tax cuts and spend more on higher education, substance abuse, mental health services, corrections and transportation. Late last week the governor declined to say which goals were most important to her. But she did say at this time of year, everybody  should be prepared to give.

"If I am going to compromise, we need to see compromise from legislative leaders as well, and that’s what this process is about," Hassan said.

Some years more than others.