House lawmakers wrapped up a three-day session Friday. They passed a state budget and dozens of other bills, including ones to relax gun rights, tighten election laws and limit the emergency powers of New Hampshire governors. The session was unusual for several reasons: The fact that it was conducted out of the State House and at a massive sports complex in Bedford; the nature of some of the legislation passed; and the fact that House Speaker Sharon Packard at one point used a vulgarity to refer to a female lawmaker.
NHPR’s senior political reporter Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered host Ed Brouder about the House’s very long week.
Ed Brouder: Let's start with the budget. It features numerous tax cuts and some non-budget policy. It cleared the House along party lines. So what's significant in the bill?
Josh Rogers: Well, the tax cuts. Cuts to the state's business taxes, to the rooms and meals tax, and the beginning of a phase out of the interest and dividends tax. That's a lot of tax cuts in a budget, certainly by historical standards of the last couple of decades.
It used to be that serial cuts like these weren't really under serious discussion by Republicans. Simply holding the line on tax increases tended to be the focus. Revenues right now, though, are strong. Collections are coming in well ahead of target in many areas, and that's despite the pandemic.
Republican leaders say there's plenty of spending in this budget. But it's also true that the House plan requires the state's largest agency, Health and Human Services, to find $50 million worth of unidentified savings, and it eliminates 226 jobs in that agency.
So, if nothing else, all of this shows the degree to which tax cuts these days are basically absolute requirements for Republicans in Concord.
Ed Brouder: So that's the spending side of the budget. But there was a lot else in this bill, right?
Josh Rogers: Well, it does a lot of other things. Many of them, I think you can say, are unusual in the context of a spending bill. The non-budget items include bans on state spending, on certain kinds of teaching about racism and implicit bias. There are also curbs on New Hampshire governors’ emergency powers. There's policy stuff in this budget regarding family planning – requiring separate facilities for family planning providers if they also perform abortions.
All of these things were put in the budget essentially as carrots to get more conservative elements in the Republican caucus to support the plan. But Republicans across the spectrum really did support this plan; there didn't seem to be any defections. And after looking at the votes and watching the debates this week, I think it's fair to say that, for a lot of these policies, it's easy to see them less as the instruments that leaders pitch them as to induce conservatives to vote for the budget, and really more representative of where this caucus is ideologically.
Ed Brouder: Now, what do you mean by that?
Josh Rogers: Well, the House this week passed a lot of very, you could call them, very conservative bills when it comes to gun rights, when it comes to school choice, on emergency powers, on election law. And, while doing so in a multiday session kind of had the effect of stacking these bills up, I think the bottom line is that a lot of conservative policies are heading to the state Senate.
And one question posed by the flip in party control in Concord after last fall's elections was: what kind of policies would Republican lawmakers in Concord embrace? And I think we've got some answers.
And I think we've learned that while the House may owe its majority to the coattails of Gov. Sununu, a lot of those lawmakers the governor helped get elected may not care entirely that much about doing his bidding. The governor certainly wants tax cuts and school choice policies. But emergency power curbs and a ban on so-called divisive concepts are things that governor senators loudly opposed.
Ed Brouder: Now, near the end of this three-day session, House Speaker Sherm Packard was heard on mic, from the speaker's rostrum, using a vulgarity to describe a female lawmaker. Packard presided over much of the voting that took place this week. So does this moment in the House tell us much about his politics and priorities?
Josh Rogers: Well, that's an interesting question. Speaker Packard’s hot mic vulgarity was directed at a lawmaker who wasn't wearing a mask, and it certainly was beyond the pale of what's acceptable. And you'd expect Packard to understand that, as he's been in the House for a very long time and has been part of multiple Republican leadership teams over the past few decades.
But if you were to ask, “what kind of House would Sherman Packard preside over and what sort of tone would he set while presiding?” I don't think that many people would guess it would be a House where the majority was this slim and the number of truly ideological bills would be so high.
It's worth noting, too, that his speakership was somewhat accidental. It came after Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19. And maybe it's telling of the politics of the GOP more broadly that Republicans are, by and large, more conservative even than they were a decade ago.
The effect of a remote work may even play a role in the tenor of the proceedings of the House: It's harder for any State House leader, in either party really, to exercise normative pressure on members. And anyone who's been watching this week has seen that when Packard tried to control the floor action, he didn't have an easy go of it.
There's also probably far less of a political middle in the state Legislature than there used to be. I think that, whatever's going on, it's certain that a lot of heavily Republican policy did get passed in the House this week.