Republican-Backed Budget Clears Final Legislative Hurdle, Heads To Sununu's Desk
State House Republicans united Thursday to pass a $13.5 billion two-year spending plan and the policy-laden companion bill that implements the budget.
Passage of the bills — which advanced many conservative priorities, including an array of new tax cuts, a sweeping school choice plan, a ban on abortion after 24 weeks, and curbs on certain teachings on race and sex — was never in doubt in the Senate, which voted for both along party lines, 14-10.
In the House, however, the outcome was less sure. A handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans threatened for weeks to vote against the budget because of disagreements over a new paid family leave program and what they considered insufficient limits on the governor’s emergency power.
But House leaders managed to rally majorities for both of the budget bills Thursday, avoiding an awkward intra-party standoff.
“This bill contains progress on darn near every promise we made to our constituents,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne told fellow lawmakers prior to the final vote.
Democrats fought the budget on multiple fronts during the several hours of debate. They said the abortion ban and language targeting what some lawmakers call “divisive concepts” marked a departure from New Hampshire tradition.
“This bill weakens individual freedom in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, taking away reproductive rights and taking away how history and racism can be taught,’ said Concord Rep. Mary Jane Wallner.
"Here's a warning: This sausage is toxic."
Democrats also said the tax cuts would disproportionately benefit the rich, and criticized a sweeping school choice bill that will allow parents to use tax money on private or parochial school tuition, or to pay for homeschooling, as irresponsible.
They also said including so much non-fiscal policy in the budget plan was the worst sort of lawmaking.
“Here’s a warning: This sausage is toxic,” Democratic Rep. Linda Tanner said.
Several Republicans acknowledged they didn’t like some non-budget items up for a vote. Some said the new curbs on emergency powers didn’t go far enough, and that the family leave plan could pave the way for an income tax. But most seemed persuaded that the good outweighed any bad.
Rep. Laurie Sanborn of Bedford opposed the paid leave provision. “This vote isn’t about me,” the Republican said. “Nearly every citizen in our state will benefit from the passage of this bill.”
In the end, just nine Republicans voted against the budget trailer bill, while a few others skipped the vote altogether. The budget totals $150 million less than what the House proposed in April -- and increases the state’s Rainy Day Fund Balance from $121 million to $158 million by 2023.
In a statement after the budget’s passage, Gov. Chris Sununu praised the spending plan.
“Historic tax cuts, property tax relief, and paid family medical leave, delivered all in one sweeping action, is a win for every citizen and family in this state,” Sununu said.
Protesters Decry GOP Spending Plan
As legislators gathered to take up the final bills of the session, more than 100 protesters rallied to oppose the Republican-backed budget plan. Their songs, chants and speeches bounced off the stone steps of the State House.
“Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved,” they sang in unison.
Speakers at the rally included President of the Manchester NAACP James McKim; Deborah Opramolla, chair of the New Hampshire Poor People’s Campaign; and Asma Elhuni of Rights and Democracy New Hampshire. Students as young as 15 years old stepped up to the microphone, too.
Their speeches highlighted key issues in the budget, including the abortion restriction, the ban on certain teachings about systemic racism and sexism, health care for low income residents and vouchers for charter schools.
Miriam Cahill-Yeaton circled the State House lawn holding a sign that read “My Body, My Choice,” opposing language in the budget that would require people seeking abortions to have an ultrasound and would ban the procedure after 24 weeks.
“I'm a retired nurse, and I am very pro-choice,” Cahill-Yeaton said. “It's not up to me to decide things like that. It's up to a woman and her doctor, and I don't feel like the state or anybody else should be interfering in that.”
Kevin Moore joined the crowd, carrying a water bottle to fight off the morning heat. He said he’d like to see Sununu direct more funding toward alleviating homelessness and mental health care.
“We have mental health issues here in New Hampshire. What's he going to do about that?” Moore asked. “That's what I want to know. He claims that he put all this money into mental health, but there's no action taken.”
Making Churches ‘Essential’ In An Emergency
Lawmakers Thursday also approved a bill that defines houses of worship as "essential" in future states of emergency.
Rep. Keith Ammon of New Boston told colleagues that the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom more than justified putting churches, synagogues and mosques on equal footing with businesses that the state deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The state of New Hampshire shut down churches, but they kept hardware stores, liquor stores and Target and Walmart open," he said.
Critics of the bill, which backers called the “Religious Liberties Act,” said houses of worship were tied to super-spreader events that threatened public safety across the country at the height of the pandemic. They said empowering them to remain open during future pandemics carries risk.
Energy Bills Get Okay
Legislators also approved two much-watched energy bills addressing issues including municipal net-metering, community power, and energy storage.
One of the bills would increase the municipal net-metering cap from 1 to 5 megawatts. Under net metering, homeowners, towns and businesses can produce their own energy and sell what's not used back to the grid.
The bill asks state regulators to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of this practice. The goal is to address concerns about what net metering may cost other ratepayers. That piece of legislation also asks regulators to establish rules around energy storage.
Legislators also approved a bill focused on community power, which enables cities and towns to purchase energy in bulk on behalf of residents and businesses. Advocates say that allows towns to choose greener, and possibly cheaper energy.
Both pieces of legislation now head to the governor’s desk.
Bill to Change State Primary Date Advances
The state House and Senate voted to send a bill to Sununu's desk which would move New Hampshire's state primary day from September to August.
The bill faces a near certain veto from Sununu, who has said he doesn't see the point. The change is also opposed by New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who thinks it will hurt election turnout.