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How The N.H. Legislature Passed Its Most Conservative Budget In Years

N.H. State House
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

After the passage of the biennial state budget last week, NHPR's All Things Considered host Peter Biello and senior political reporter Josh Rogers talked about the policy included in the budget and what that means for the future.

Peter Biello: Ok, Josh. So, the $13.5 billion state budget takes effect later this week. It includes multiple tax cuts, a sweeping education choice program, a ban on abortion after 24 weeks, and language limiting certain kinds of teaching on racism and sexism. So, a lot for Republicans to like, and they did it with a slim majority. How do they do it, Josh?

Josh Rogers: In short, they stuck together. You know, if you remember when Republicans took power in the State House, there were a lot of unknowns, particularly in the House of Representatives. The Republicans had a remarkably slim majority and a caucus whose ideological leanings weren't terribly spelled out last November and lots of first time Republicans [were] elected and [there was] kind of an accidental leader in House Speaker Sherm Packard, who took only took over only after Speaker Dick Hinch died suddenly before the session really even got started. But despite all of that, unity was something that Republicans really achieved. It's how the budget got through, it's how the legislature passed lots of conservative policy outside the budget on guns, on religious liberties, emergency powers, election laws. In all, it's really pretty remarkable. And, you know, small irony, maybe, is that social distancing could have helped the Republican caucus stay united. But it's also true that many of these Republican lawmakers in Concord are really a mind of very conservative, it turns out. In the House in particular, the caucus really went for it on the policy front, pushing the envelope basically on plenty of issues that Republicans have struggled to advance in recent years - tax policy, abortion, school choice - and that push came even when Governor Sununu, whose popularity and his big win November really helped put some of these folks in office, probably would have preferred they didn't push so hard. And with redistricting coming up and Republicans controlling that, the GOP is really looking towards a chance to cement their gains for some years to come.

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Peter Biello: And you mentioned Governor Chris Sununu. He won reelection last year in a landslide. Polling shows he remains quite popular. A lot of that popularity seems to derive from his management of the pandemic. What did he get out of the State House this year?

Josh Rogers: Well, I guess it depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, he got the tax cuts he prioritized and wanted. He got a paid family leave provision in the budget, he wanted that. Educational choice policies, he wanted those. How much the governor wants to own the budget social policies is hard to know. Sununu is certainly going to have to talk a lot about them if he runs for anything — another term as governor or maybe the U.S. Senate next year — and that's going to drag him out of the, I guess you could call, the affable manager mode that he's worked to cultivate. And that's worked well for him in attracting votes. And I think it's fair to assume that he's hoping that his management of the COVID pandemic would have been the foundation of whatever next political move he chooses to make. And now he's likely going to have to answer over and over again on the campaign trail for a list of Republican accomplishments that he didn't necessarily propose and never necessarily seemed too enthusiastic about some of the social ones. And maybe this will turn out fine for him, but it's going to be a little different, more partisan and definitely more ideological than things might have been had the Republican legislature hadn't been so gung ho and so successful.

Peter Biello: And I want to ask you about the Democrats. After losing big in down ballot races last year, they were going to be playing defense this term in Concord. What was their strategy there?

Josh Rogers: Well, Democrats did come out of the November elections with wins at the top of the ticket in the federal races in big, big down ballot losses. And, after those losses, they said they'd be reevaluating their approach and how they appealed to voters in local races. This year there wasn't really much evidence of a fresh approach from the party within the State House over the past six months. Now, it's certainly true that rules of legislative politics didn't help. They're in the minority in both House and Senate and that makes it tough. But, they also both seem to spend, in retrospect, a lot of time litigating procedural questions over COVID State House policy, including the risks posed by in-person sessions that may not have helped them politically. And in terms of policy, ironically enough, for the biggest obstacle for Republican leaders often came from within their own caucus. And while things panned out, we don't yet know what voters are going to think. And Democrats are going to make the case that Republicans have gone too far, that they've gone overboard in pushing policy, and maybe that can be shaped into a viable political strategy for them for 2022. But right now, Democrats are also staring down the barrel of a Republican-controlled redistricting process that is almost certainly going to end up making it harder for them to regain ground in Concord.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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