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N.H. Lawmakers Float Plan To Trim Governor's Emergency Powers In State Budget

Ali Oshinskie / NHPR

Budget writers in the New Hampshire House are making some key decisions -- on policy and tactics -- as they work to meet deadlines to get a spending plan out the door.

House Finance Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, surprised colleagues Wednesday with a proposal to add language to the state spending plan that would limit emergency powers granted to New Hampshire governors. While such a policy change might seem irrelevant in a piece of legislation that is largely devoted to detailing the dollars to be spent on state programs over the next two years, Weyler was frank about why he wanted it added.

“What we are trying to do is find enough votes to pass the budget, and some of the people have pledged to vote if we can get this amendment in,” Weyler said.

The amendment would limit states of emergency to 21 days, with one renewal, absent legislative approval or a determination by the House clerk that at least half of House members were “incapacitated or missing.” Under those circumstances, the governor would have a free hand to extend states of emergency.

Weyler’s proposal does not come out of the blue. Gov. Chris Sununu’s use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a sore point for  lawmakers of both parties. Still, Weyler’s proposal drew only Republican backing Wednesday.

Democrats, including Rep. Sharon Nordgren, who has been in the Legislature for more than 30 years, questioned a clause limiting governor’s emergency powers being shoehorned into a spending bill.

“The public is watching this, and I’m shocked, I’m shocked,” Nordgren said.

“It’s sausage-making,” Weyler replied.

The panel was more united, voting unanimously, when it came to backing the closure of the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s detention facility for minors, effective July 2022.

Right now, the Manchester facility’s secured building has a 144-bed capacity; most days fewer than 20 minors are housed there. The state spends more than $10 million a year to keep the center open, which occupies a sprawling campus in the north end of Manchester.

The center’s cost is one reason lawmakers seem likely to close the facility.  But the Sununu Center is also now the focus of a lawsuit that alleges more than 230 former residents were abused by staff at the facility, stretching back decades.

The proposal sets aside $2 million to wind down the Sununu Center, which would be repurposed or sold. It also includes money to retrain workers who would be displaced by the closure.

“They are going to need to get ready for all the transitional costs of closing down,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the House Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat. “And getting the children placed in appropriate placements.”

The budget plan goes for a vote by the full House Finance Committee next week.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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