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On the Political Front: Kindergarten Adds Fuel To State Budget Debate

NHPR Staff

Each week, NHPR Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers joins Morning Edition's Rick Ganley for On the Political Front, a rundown of the week to come in New Hampshire Politics.

Ok Josh…So the house votes on its version of state budget this week. Is this Republican-crafted proposal, which spends a bit less than what governor Sununu proposed, and includes some of his priorities but nixes others, like  full-day kindergarten….. Is the house budget going to get out of the house in its current form?

Well, on paper it should, but the numbers in the house do make failure a possibility. Some conservatives in the house are quite insistent that this budget spends too much money, and they want the package trimmed. Democrats are also critical of the budget like this budget – they want full-day kindergarten, among other things. So if Democrats oppose it as a bloc, or something very close to it, house Republican leadership will make sure their caucus stays pretty united. But if 20-25 Republicans decide to oppose this budget, things could get interesting.

Speaker Jasper is indicating he thinks the votes will be there for this budget. Jasper’s also been clear on the topic of full-day kindergarten – he opposes it. Kindergarten isn’t in the house budget.  But state senate voted for full-day kindergarten late last week. And Governor Sununu is working to build support. Where is that going?

It's hard to know. But let’s start with what the senate did last week. It took a straight-up full-day kindergarten bill proposed by Democrats, which the senate had already passed and tabled, removed it from the table, and rewrote it mirror what Sununu’s targeted plan, so $9m per year. The original senate bill would have spent $14 million a year. Regardless of what the house ends up including in the budget, kindergarten will head to the house as a stand alone bill. The policy will also probably end up in the senate budget. 

So kindergarten is likely to move on at two tracks? As the senate bill, and probably in the senate budget when the time comes?

And there will also be an amendment offered to add kindergarten back to the house budget during the floor debate, which at a minimum will give us a glimpse of where full house stands on kindergarten this week. But the senate’s move to passing the policy outside the budget is significant because taking it out of the budget  does open up different ways to get the policy passed.

What do you mean?

Well, if kindergarten is solely considered in within the budget, you have the dynamic that tends to apply to budget votes: The caucuses – Republican and Democrat - tend to vote mostly as blocs. And in this case, not having kindergarten helps Speaker Jasper keep those conservatives who may have reservations about the budget from opposing it. So opposing kindergarten puts Jasper’s leadership team and the hard core conservatives united on that front. And then on the other side, backing kindergarten, you will have Democrats, and however many house Republicans really want kindergarten in the house budget. Hard to know how of those there may be, but again, if Democrats unite, and 20-25 Republicans join them, kindergarten could be added back in on the house floor.

And is there indication Govenror Sununu is open to working with Democrats to get this through if need be?

It certainly appears so.  On Friday the Governor took to the road a bit to promote kindergarten. He was in Derry and visited with the chamber of commerce, which has backed full-day kindergarten.  Prior to that meeting he also met with some house members – Republicans – under the auspices of  the Campaign For Family Friendly Economy, an advocacy group that backs policies like a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and full-day kindergarten. And during this this meeting, Sununu was really leaning on that group's messaging - that full-day kindergarten helps close close the so-called "opportunity gap" between rich and poor, that it makes it easier for parents of kindergarten-age children  to work full-time.

And when he was done talking, it was interesting to observe Sununu huddling with Karen Hicks, the Democratic political consultant who advises the Campaign for Family Friendly Economy.  Basically, Hicks was giving Sununu feedback, positive feedback on how he was pitching kindergarten, and Sununu appeared to be really listening. Karen Hicks has been involved in New Hampshire and national politics for a long time. She’s worked for Hillary Clinton, Jeanne Shaheen, Howard Dean, the SEIU - so not a typical Sununu ally by any stretch. But they are of a mind on this issue and she’s probably more capable, from a pure tactical level, than anyone he’s got working for him. So the Governor seems to be looking at several ways to skin the cat on full day kindergarten….and there may be several paths to get there, regardless of what the house ends up doing this week.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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