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Budget deal clears NH House with broad bipartisan support

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Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler (left) and House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (center) address the full House during debate over a $16 billion state budget plan.

The narrowly divided New Hampshire House passed a $16 billion state budget Thursday, approving a bipartisan proposal that won overwhelming majorities from both political parties.

The final plan, which now heads to the state Senate for further work, won easy passage after the House’s Republican leader, Jason Osborne, and the Democratic leader, Matt Wilhelm, went public with a compromise they’d negotiated a day earlier.

“I appreciate my friend for being willing to do that with me,” Osborne noted in an address to the full House during the debate over the bill.

The deal, which was backed by the full Democratic caucus and most Republicans, was designed to blunt anticipated pushback from conservatives, who felt the proposal crafted by the House Finance Committee was already too rich.

The approved budget bill boosts total state spending by 18 percent, accelerates the repeal of the tax on interest and dividends, and includes across-the-board raises for state employees.

“You can’t just pretend that there are additional revenues coming in,” Republican Rep. J.R. Hoell of Dunbarton argued, in a failed effort to persuade the House to trim $200 million from the budget.

In total, the final package added about $60 million to the plan endorsed by the GOP-led House Finance Committee.

Other key proposals in the passed House budget include:

  • Medicaid provider rates: The original House budget proposed adding $90 million in new funding to boost reimbursements for healthcare providers who treat patients on Medicaid. The passed compromise bill would lift total spending to $130 million.  
  • Affordable housing: Budget writers had originally proposed putting $15 million into the state’s Affordable Housing Fund; the final budget adds another $15 million.
  • Education Freedom Accounts: The plan as adopted crimps anticipated two-year spending on the state’s voucher-like school choice program by $20 million, from $60 million to $40 million, while also leaving current eligibility for the program intact. 
  • Emergency powers: The budget resuscitates a proposal Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed in 2022 that would limit a governor’s power to extend states of emergency, and give the Legislature the power to declare and extend states of emergencies.  

The House also passed amendments to remove $1.4 million that Sununu had proposed to increase patrols of the state's border with Canada. State Rep. Alissandra Murray called the “Northern Border Alliance” a “massive intrusion on local control.”
“This program is built on the wild assumption that northern New Hampshire has an extreme problem with illegal border crossings,” said Murray, a Democrat from Manchester. “Yet despite informal and formal requests, neither the governor nor any state agency has provided any data on unauthorized border entries into New Hampshire.”

Before Thursday’s vote, House leaders stressed the importance of establishing a position in preparation for budget negotiations with the Senate later this spring.

"There is something in there for all of us, and if we are going to be able to defend it when it goes to the Senate, we have to pass it,” House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler told colleagues. “Otherwise we don't have anything to argue with."

After the final vote, top lawmakers in both parties appeared relieved that the spending plan made it out of the House as easily as it did. Given the body’s narrow partisan margin — and disagreements within the Republican caucus about the direction of the budget plan — there was speculation that the House might be unable to assemble a majority behind any spending plan.

But House leaders were also quick to note this budget could change a lot.

“This amounts to a first draft,” Deputy House Speaker Steven Smith said.

In a statement, Sununu said nothing about the particular policies in the House’s adopted budget, but indicated that he also sees it as a work in progress.

"I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure the final budget is balanced, includes key priorities to promote and increase freedom, and gets unchecked spending increases back under control,” Sununu said.

Throughout the weeks of internal House negotiations over the budget, Sununu was largely silent. But the House stripped or altered many of the key proposals he touted in his own budget proposal earlier this year, including a sweeping plan to overhaul state occupational licensing. House budget writers largely jettisoned that plan, saying it was too broad and complicated to be dealt with right now.

The Senate is scheduled to begin its budget hearings Monday.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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