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Budget Vote In N.H. House Puts Pandemic Economics And Politics At The Fore

N.H. State House
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

The New Hampshire House will vote this week on its state budget proposal. The Republican written plan differs in key ways from the spending plan proposed by Gov. Chris Sununu. And it includes policies Sununu says he would veto.

NHPR's Rick Ganley spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about the policy and the politics behind the House budget plan.

Rick Ganley: So let's talk about dollars and cents: What's notable in this budget?

Josh Rogers: Well, it's not an austerity budget exactly, but it is one written by Republicans who do want to trim spending. On the numbers, the budget spends $13.67 billion dollars in total spending. That's $133 million less than what Gov. Sununu proposed.

This budget plan would cut taxes: business taxes, rooms and meals tax. It would also, by the way, trim $40 million in current revenue sharing with communities. That's a direct payment to cities and towns that would also require $50 million in unspecified cuts to the Health and Human Services Department. And it would nix 233 vacant jobs in that agency.

It would also include a provision to expand gambling via historical racing, which allows people to bet on horse races that have already taken place via video terminals. That's expected to raise $10 million. Those are at least some of the key fiscal components of the bill.

Ganley: And what about policy elements, Josh? What sticks out there?

Rogers: Well, two things. One is that Republicans rejected a bunch of initiatives proposed by Gov. Sununu. The merger of the community college and university systems, for one - that's out. Sununu’s paid family leave proposal has been jettisoned. There are other ideas they rejected, and it should definitely be said that for lawmakers to junk the governor's budget ideas: that's a common thing.

The second is the extent to which Republicans have passed this budget with policies not only not contemplated by Gov. Sununu, but also that Sununu has openly opposed. That's a bit less common, and definitely less common when the legislative majority and the governor are of the same party. Examples of that are putting limits on gubernatorial emergency powers. There's a provision that would forgive businesses who were fined for violating state COVID guidance. Very few businesses have been cited, by the way.

And there's also prohibitions on allowing tax money to go to state entities that teach that race or sex makes people inherently oppressive or victimized. It’s something backers are calling a “divisive concepts” bill. The impetus for that policy comes from a President Trump executive order. Sununu has been on the record objecting to that provision on free speech grounds. But if this ban were to take place, it would probably also make it impossible for the state to conduct implicit bias training, for example.

These sorts of policies, both the executive power limits and the divisive concept stuff, they're not typically the kinds of things you see inserted into a budget. Usually it's really about spending and raising the money to fund basic government programs.

Ganley: And now Republican leaders are saying when they added those policies, they were doing so to make sure that the budget would have the support it needs from the Republican caucus in order to pass. So, what do you make of that?

Rogers: Well, I think it may be true. You know, Democrats were not going to back a GOP budget, and that was before Republicans added language around family planning – another provision added, kind of tailored, to win conservative votes for this budget. That would require state-funded providers of family planning and STD testing and that also perform abortions to have wholly separate family planning operations and maybe even facilities. The amendment effectively targeted Planned Parenthood.

But overall with the numbers in the New Hampshire House as they stand now – with a slim Republican majority and a good slug of Republicans who are in the House who don't necessarily feel terribly beholden to Gov. Sununu, particularly when it comes to pandemic related policies – House leaders don't have a huge margin to work with. And they do want to get a budget on to the Senate.

Ganley: So some of these policies have a clear political element. But Republican leaders, it's not like they're fighting these, right?

Rogers: You know, it's an interesting question. In the main, I think it's safe to say that these are policies Republican leaders are fine with. They probably would not have put them in the budget otherwise. Republican House Majority Leader Jason Osborne is the co-sponsor of the bill on so-called divisive concepts. That's the bill that puts a limit on teaching about racism. Some of the other stuff – emergency power limits, for instance – those have already passed the House in standalone form.

It's clear Gov. Sununu isn't pleased. He's repeatedly said that this budget has, quote, gone off the rails in the House and that he's hoping to work more closely with the Senate on the budget. In some ways, that's totally unsurprising. Governors do tend to work more closely with the Senate. The simple numbers involved shape that: 24 senators versus 400 House members.

There's also generally a clearer picture on the revenue front, due to the timing of tax collections, by the time the budget reaches the Senate. And this year, there's also perhaps going to be more clarity on new federal money coming due to sort of federal relief.

But how the House budget goes could be telling as to where Republicans in the State House truly are these days politically, This week, there are three days of sessions and there are going to be other things to look at as a barometer. Lots, really. Right to Work, for instance, is going to be getting a vote this week. That could be another way to gauge how conservative this House is and what that will mean down the line as everybody continues to navigate both the pandemic and in one-party control and Concord.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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