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Sununu outlines budget plan that would boost school spending and state salaries

Gov. Chris Sununu presents his two-year state budget proposal to a joint session of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.
Zoey Knox
Gov. Chris Sununu presents his two-year state budget proposal to a joint session of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

Gov. Chris Sununu presented a nearly $15 billion state budget proposal Tuesday, with an emphasis on increased spending on public education, plans for licensing reform and hefty pay raises for state employees.

In an address to lawmakers, Sununu said his plan was consistent with recent state budgets and addresses pressing needs while honoring state traditions of fiscal restraint.

“For the last six years, we have taken steps to chart a fiscally responsible and often a very innovative course for our state,” Sununu said. “Those principles are all guided by the budget. It’s the roadmap for the future and a blueprint for our continued success."

The spending total, which includes federal funds, would be a 12% increase over the current biennial budget. It assumes current revenues will hold steady, includes no new taxes or fees and would boost the state's "rainy day" fund by $180 million.

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The budget now moves to the House’s Finance Committee, which will spend the coming weeks dissecting Sununu’s proposals and — in most cases — likely replacing them with their own ideas.

Here are a few highlights from the plan laid out by Sununu Tuesday.

Public education

Sununu says New Hampshire has enough surplus money to increase funding for public schools, public charter schools and school voucher programs — to the tune of an additional $200 million over two years.

The amount allotted to each district would depend on the number of enrolled students, but Sununu’s plan would target more money to low-income students and property-poor towns.

The state’s current education funding formula is the subject of multiple lawsuits from schools that allege the state should pay more, and both political parties agree it’s outdated.

If passed, Sununu’s proposal would represent a significant change to New Hampshire’s system of school funding, but it falls short of what some school finance advocates say is necessary.

“$200 million in increased education funding from the state will help, but it does not fully address the $2.3 billion being downshifted on local property taxpayers every year,” said Zack Sheehan, project director at the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, which advocates for more state aid for public schools, particularly in low-income communities.

Sununu also pledged to increase state support for charter schools, school building aid and for a new initiative to train and credential more computer science teachers.

Sununu’s proposal would also expand eligibility for participation in the state’s new voucher-like school choice program, called the Education Freedom Accounts. The initiative, now in its second year, gives state aid to low and moderate income families to pay for non-public school options such as homeschool or private school.

That program has come under fire from Democrats for its high costs, but Sununu said its growth is a sign that the state is meeting students’ needs.

“That is government finally ensuring that the system works for families and that the system meets the needs of the child — not the other way around,” Sununu said in his address Tuesday. “And that is something we should always fight for.”

State employee salaries

Sununu included a big pay raise for state employees in his proposed budget: a 10% hike in the first year of the budget, and 2% in the following year.

Sununu said the raise, which would apply to roughly 10,000 rank and file state employees, is needed to address a state government workforce shortage. Right now about 1 in 5 state jobs is unfilled.

"This budget will change that,” Sununu said.

Rich Gulla, who leads the State Employees Association, said his union "looked forward to supporting the historical and meaningful raise in Gov. Sununu’s budget every step of the way."

Workforce development

Sununu also proposed streamlining the state's vocational licensing requirements, eliminating 34 professional licenses and 14 regulatory boards. The changes, Sununu said, would make it possible for workers licensed in certain trades in other states to immediately practice in New Hampshire, without having to seek a new license here.

Other proposals aimed at addressing dire workforce shortages in the state include an increase in the reimbursement rate for Medicaid health care providers by 3% and student debt relief for those who pursue careers in mental health treatment.

"Let's remember who we are, let's remember it's about individual freedom," Sununu said. "Less red tape and more common sense — that's how we grow our economy."

With an eye to the workforce of the future, Sununu proposed spending $5 million to certify hundreds of new computer science teachers and bring robotics instruction to every middle and high school classroom.

Republican leaders in the House reacted warmly to several pieces of Sununu’s budget proposal, including the ideas for regulatory reform.

“This transformational plan will have a lasting impact on the lives of every Granite Stater,” said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne. “Overly restrictive occupational licensing puts barriers in the way of those pursuing their dreams.”

Democrats in the Legislature said they needed more details before assessing Sununu’s budget.

“I was certainly glad to hear his emphasis on the state employees — I think it’s long overdue we take a close look at what we are paying our important state workers,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the senior Democrat on the House Finance Committee. “But, like all budgets, I really want to hold off on making any judgment on it before I really look at the details, because unfortunately, the devil is always in the details.”

NHPR staff Josh Rogers and Sarah Gibson contributed reporting for this story. Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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