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NH News

Series Of Votes Sets Stage For Contentious Final Weeks Of N.H. Legislative Session

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Ali Oshinskie / NHPR
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It's been a busy week in the State House, and in the state Senate in particular. Lawmakers there are working to finalize their proposal for the next two-year state budget. They also met earlier Thursday, where they passed a number of conservative priorities, on topics ranging from abortion to gun rights to vaccines, setting the stage for a potentially contentious wrap up to the legislative session.

NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers discussed the developments with All Things Considered host Ed Brouder.

Ed Brouder: Josh, where are we in the calendar in terms of what needs to get done and when?

Josh Rogers: Well, as you recall, the House passed its budget some time ago. It sent it to the Senate. The Senate now has just a few days to wrap up its version of that spending plan in committee. They're planning to vote it out of the Finance Committee Friday.

And it's been an interesting budget season. Republicans control all chambers. And while plenty of people a year ago feared that the economic impact of the pandemic would leave state revenues dry, that's not the position we're in now. Collections of state taxes are generally up, and you add to that the incoming round of federal relief funding, and budget writers in Concord are in a pretty rare position of not really having to pinch too many pennies when it comes to funding state activities.

When Republicans are in charge of writing the state budget, the focus tends to be: how do we balance this thing without increasing taxes? This year, Republican lawmakers are cutting taxes and talking a lot more about where they're going to be spending money.

One area, particularly in the Senate, is mental health. Senate President Chuck Morse said that's going to be a priority. The Senate yesterday added money to build a new secure psychiatric unit: The state's current secured facility is behind the walls of the New Hampshire state prison, and it's long been recognized as inadequate. Morse has signaled there will likely be more mental health investment outside the budget with the federal money later this summer.

Brouder: As you said, tax cuts are expected to be a feature in this budget. Republicans across the board are pushing for those. What are the details there?

Rogers: Basically, rate cuts to New Hampshire's major business taxes, a phase out of the state's tax on interest and dividends, a small trim to the tax on rooms and meals. Overall, I certainly can't recall a budget that had so many tax cuts.

Brouder: There's also been a lot of focus on issues that aren't typically part of the state budget conversation.

Rogers: Absolutely. You see some of that in the debates over a governor’s emergency powers post-pandemic, and so-called “divisive concepts.” That's basically around limiting certain sorts of teachings; essentially trying to limit any notion that race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc., might make somebody inherently oppressive or oppressed. Democrats fear this sort of provision would have a chilling effect on schools’ teaching about systemic racism and potentially around implicit bias training in the public sector. They lack the votes to stop this. But it certainly remains to be seen how easy it's going to be for Republicans to come to a final agreement on this. This was something Governor Sununu threatened to veto over when the plan was in the House.

The push on this front has come from the right. And conservatives in the State House, particularly those in the House of Representatives, are in a pretty powerful position these days. The Senate's been trying, from its own very Republican perspective, to maybe get the legislature in a position where vetoes by the governor are off the table and both chambers can agree.

At the same time, they're also pushing some pretty conservative, certainly by New Hampshire standards, policies themselves. They inserted a 24-week abortion ban into their budget proposal yesterday. New Hampshire does remain among a handful of states with no gestational limit on abortion. But it's atypical to put something like this in a budget, particularly in New Hampshire. And it's hard not to see a good deal of this as a carrot to House conservatives, towards getting a deal on the budget. And we also don't yet know where Governor Sununu, who says he supported abortion rights, is on this. We're going to learn

Brouder: That is the latest action on the state budget. But the full Senate was in session today to voting on things beyond budgetary matters.

Rogers: Yes, and conservative policies were certainly in the foreground. The chamber passed, along party lines, a bill to exempt the display of a weapon from New Hampshire's reckless conduct statute. The Senate passed a bill to define religious activity, including possibly activity by religious schools or businesses with a religious base, as essential during states of emergency. And they also passed a measure dealing with vaccines driven by the concern that COVID vaccines might be mandatory: In fact, COVID vaccines are not mandatory. But this was pitched as kind of a “bodily liberty” issue. It's a real array of matters today. And if you were wondering how Republicans might use their unified control of the state government, these are issues that give you a good view that.