NH Legislature About To Enter Tough Final Stretch

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The end is in sight, but the journey will become more difficult.

The 2021 legislative session in its final stages and about to enter the “Let’s make a deal” segment.

The legislature is scheduled to take final action on its bills the first week of June including the Senate’s version of the state’s nearly $14 billion, two-year operating budget.

After that the House and Senate will hold conference committees to work out the details in different House and Senate versions of bills.

This week Senate budget writers continue to refine their proposal, but it is likely to be somewhat higher than the House’s $13.67 billion plan because — the advantage of better revenue data with April revenues — there is more money available.

However, that may not be such a good thing as the very conservative GOP members of the House had to be “bought off” when the House passed its version of the budget: The key piece limiting the governor’s emergency powers.

The Senate and governor have reached agreement on changes to the state of emergency laws, but the changes may not be enough for the conservative House members.

The governor would be able to declare a 30-day emergency and renew it, but lawmakers by majority vote of the House and Senate could end it, but the governor could declare another state of emergency.

Also under the agreement, the governor would still be able to accept and spend money without legislative oversight to protect the immediate health, safety and welfare of the citizens of New Hampshire.

As is often heard, that exception is a loophole big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through.

If you think back to the beginnings of this pandemic, there was very little threat to the health, safety or welfare of the citizens with a handful of COVID-19 cases for the first month or two.

The case numbers began exploding when the coronavirus infected the patients and staff  at long-term care facilities and then it became an immediate threat to the general public.

By the end of March, the legislature and the state were shut down.

At that point there was good reason to be able to act quickly.

But on the other hand, the way the phrase is written, would require that all of the above or the health, safety and welfare of the citizens would have to be at risk, not just the health, or just the safety, or just the welfare, or a combination of any two.

However the terms are broad enough any good legal counsel would be able to find a route to invoking the exception.

What the law has always needed, but no one noticed because it never was invoked before, is real clarity as to what the governor may or may not do to expand his or her authority during a state of emergency.

This agreement does not really do that.

But without the immediate threat, spending over $100,000 has to go before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. If the committee does not act in five days, the governor can go ahead with the spending.

There are a lot of outs for a governor in this agreement in a state with arguably one of the weakest governors constitutionally and legally.

The Senate will vote on the proposed changes to House Bill 417 Thursday.

The governor’s emergency powers are but one of the many disagreements that face the General Court before they can adjourn for the summer.

The budget is always a fight between the House and Senate and this year some things could be hotly contested.

There are a few of what you might call “culture war” items the House added to the budget to entice more Republicans to vote for it and to achieve some long-term objectives that have been left fallow until this year.

One provision in the House budget would essentially prohibit Planned Parenthood of Northern New England from providing family planning and other health care services unless it can physically and financially separate abortion procedures from its other services.

The real goal of the provision is limiting abortions, which for years has been a contentious issue not necessarily decided along party lines, although it is more so these days.

The problem is that many low-income women and single-parent households depend on Planned Parenthood for their basic health care services, particularly in the rural areas of the state.

The House added a monetary incentive for another organization to step in and provide those services.

The Senate has not finished deliberation on its version of the budget and is not expected to do so until this week, so issues like this are not yet settled.

Another budget issue is the contents of House Bill 544, which would prohibit including “divisive concepts related to sex and race in state contracts, grants, and training programs.” The bill would apply to schools, state agencies, and companies and organizations that have state contracts.

House Finance Committee Chair Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, sent a letter to the Senate leadership saying major changes to the House passed budget would likely mean it would not pass the House at the end of the session.

The Senate generally does not take the bait on something like that, but so far the Senate has not been a brake on some of the more “radical” bills the House has sent to them, although some of the most controversial have yet to come to the Senate floor.

The House budget reduces the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget by more than $70 million in across the board cuts, with about $22 million from eliminating positions.

The other reduction is $50 million over the two years across the department.

The House exempted some areas like direct care positions, but HHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette those exemptions make it nearly impossible to meet the requirement.

The Senate Finance Committee voted to remove the $50 million reduction from their budget proposal.

A bill that could impact budget discussions between the House and Senate has yet to be resolved, Senate Bill 3, which would exempt Payroll Protection Program grants to businesses from business profits tax liability.

The House Ways and Means Committee is grappling with the bill and its estimated $99 million negative implication for state revenues.

It appears many businesses filing tax returns for the 2020 calendar year followed current state law and included the grants in their gross income. That has inflated business tax returns and will have to be refunded if the bill passes.

The committee would like to limit the exemption in some way so it would not impact small struggling businesses, but would affect the large national and international corporations who have weathered the pandemic well.

The committee has to make a decision this week.

For all the potential disagreements between the House and Senate, there are several major issues where there is agreement.

Both bodies agree on tax rate cuts for the business enterprise and business profit taxes, the rooms and meals tax, and for the interest and dividends tax and phasing it out over time, i.e. after the next biennium, which begins July 1.

And the Senate has passed a school voucher bill that is considered one of the broadest in the country, and put it on the table so it could consider including it in its version of the budget.

The bill is nearly identical to one the House Education Committee decided to retain and work on before bringing it back in January.

Lawmakers have two options, go forward in the budget this year, or wait until next year knowing the votes are there to pass it in a bit more refined form.

That is but one of many issues that will be decided in the next month before lawmakers go home for the summer.

If New Hampshire lawmakers need any nudging, the legislature in neighboring Vermont adjourned Friday and started their summer vacation.