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N.H. House Dem Leader: Sununu's Budget Was Impressive, House Version Needs Work

Peter Biello
Rep. Steve Shurtleff is N.H. House Democratic Leader.

The New Hampshire House is scheduled to vote tomorrow on its proposed state budget.

The $11.9 billion budget has opponents on both sides of the aisle, and it’s unclear whether it'll get enough support this week.

House Democratic Leader Representative Steve Shurtleff opposes the budget in its current form, but could possibly support it if certain changes were. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

The budget that came out of the Governor’s office had quite a few things that the Democrats may have actually liked—full-day kindergarten, money for transportation, a few other things. Would you have supported that budget from the Governor?

We would have thought very seriously about supporting it. We thought the governor was on the right track. We wanted to see more for kindergarten but overall we were very impressed with the budget Governor Sununu gave us.

And then it went to the House where it was changed. You lost full-day kindergarten. Republicans, if they stick together, could pass this budget by themselves. If that happens, what would be the role of the Democrats?

First of all, if that happens—and I have grave doubts about that happening—then it would go onto the Senate and eventually to a committee of conference. I think Democrats would still have an active role in the development of the final budget.

The House Freedom Caucus seems to be opposed. Some members have said that they’ll vote “no” on this House budget. If it goes down on the first vote, what do you see Democrats doing as a response?

I’m sure if it goes down on the first vote, the speaker will most likely call for a recess to try to get his Republicans on board. We do have some amendments we’re very anxious to bring in, including the governor’s amendment on education for kindergarten. We’d really like to see that.

These issues, we think, are important, not so much to Democrats, but more important to the people of New Hampshire. (We’d like to see) money to go back in for drug and alcohol, money to eliminate the waiting list that could come out of the developmental disability funding as it is proposed in the republican budget. Several other things, including raising the pension rates, the amount of money they pay for their own health care for those over 65. So there are things we want to see done to the Republican budget to make it far better and we hope that can happen.

So if those amendments are included, you’d vote for this budget?

I personally probably would. People find this hard to believe, but we don’t actually whip in the Democratic caucus. I often tell the members of the Democratic caucus, “Feel free to vote your district. Vote your conscience.” But being Democrats, there are things we tend to believe in, things we’d like to see, like full-day kindergarten. These are the things that bind us together.

Are you advising Democrats to vote in a particular way on this budget as it’s currently written?

As it’s written now, I will tell our caucus that, personally—and I know members of the finance committee—Democrats are also going to vote against it. We want to see full-day kindergarten. We want to see money put back in for the developmentally disabled. We don’t want to see that waiting list grow. There’s money in there for so many other things—funding for the drug and alcohol at five percent. We know it’s a serious problem, both issues, alcohol and drugs, and there are other issues that they just took out, and things that the governor proposed.

I might add that I was disappointed somewhat. We supported the governor’s proposal for full-day kindergarten. We realize how important (it is). But it wasn’t just a matter of Republicans taking that funding—that $9 million—out of the budget. But the comments from republican leadership, such as: “It’s socialization.” “It’s growing government.” “It’s just a babysitting service.”

We know that that early education is so important to our young people to get a firm basis as they go forward in life, so it’s one thing to say we’re cutting it because of funding, but to come out and actually attack what we Democrats support but more importantly the head of the Republican party supports is surprising.

Is it surprising to you that an issue like kindergarten has become so important to the discussion of this next budget?

No. You know, I was in China this fall and I asked my host there if they have full-day kindergarten. They said they had two years of full-day preschool and then full-day kindergarten. And it opened my eyes. We know that the educational standards in the U.S. are falling behind countries in Asia and Europe and it’s because of issues like this.

So this is something that really crosses party lines. And we’ve seen the governor, even after full-day kindergarten was taken out of the budget, speaking to the Derry and Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, saying how important it is to have this level of education. And we agree with the governor. Democrats are very much in support of full-day kindergarten. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a question of what’s right for New Hampshire.

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