Senate finance crafts budget more to Sununu’s liking

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POLITICAL ANALYSIS



The House sent Gov. Chris Sununu a message when the members passed their budget plan about two months ago.

They removed some of the governor’s priorities like his college loan forgiveness program for graduates in high demand fields, a school infrastructure program for broadband and safety measures, a new 30-bed secure psychiatric hospital on New Hampshire Hospital grounds, a voluntary family and medical leave program, as well as allowing Planned Parenthood to provide health services to low-income folks, and the Governor’s Scholarship Program had all but $1 removed.

And House budget writers moved money around in significant ways adding almost $30 million for county nursing homes to prevent a significant property tax increase, $11 million for the two higher education systems to level fund them for the next two years while officials decide whether to merge the two systems — another Sununu priority that was overhauled — and $100 million of general funds to offset statewide education property tax money for the second year of the biennium.

The House budget reinstates education and training programs at the state prison which Sununu left out of his budget and cuts his proposed Department of Health and Human Services budget by more than $72 million in back-of-the-budget, across-the-board reductions: $22.6 million in personnel — over 225 positions — and $30 million in the 2022 fiscal year and $20 million in fiscal 2023.

And they turned the heat up in the culture wars by inserting the contents of House 544 which would prohibit “the dissemination of certain divisive concepts related to sex and race in state contracts, grants, and training programs,” and made major reductions in a governor’s authority during a state of emergency.

The message House budget writers sent to Sununu is that your budget spends too much and does not include provisions the very conservative Freedom Caucus believes need to be in the budget for their support.

The Senate budget sends an entirely different message to the governor: “We got your back.”

Sununu said the House budget was off the rails when it passed and he would turn to the Senate to restore order.

Earlier this month Sununu said, “We have a few things on the back end to tighten up a little bit,” but indicated — in a general way — he believed the direction the Senate was taking was more to his liking than the House plan.

While the Senate did not restore everything the House removed or changed, it took care of many of the governor’s priorities.

The raw numbers are very similar in the House and Senate and governor’s budgets. The governor’s plan spends $13.8 billion in total spending, including federal money, highway and fish and game funds and other money including the state general funds, while the House budget is $13.67 billion and the Senate $13.5 billion.

General fund revenues for Sununu’s plan are $5.5 billion, the House $5.4 billion and the Senate $5.49 billion.

The general fund appropriations are $5.47 billion for the governor’s while the House is at $5.42 billion and the Senate $5.39 billion.

The numbers may be similar, but the budgets are a study in contrasts between GOP factions in the legislature in some areas and in lockstep in others.

It should be noted the House budget did not receive any Democratic votes, while only two Republicans voted against it.

The partisan divide is likely in the Senate as well with a 14-10 vote down party lines Thursday for both House Bill 1, the budget numbers, and House Bill 2, the trailer bill with changes in law to reflect the numbers and a whole lot more this year including a school voucher program called “education freedom accounts.”

The governor supports “education choice,” but has not said directly if he would support the program included in the Senate budget.

However, there are more definitive bows to Sununu in the Senate budget including restoring his family and medical leave voluntary program.

The Senate included $30 million for a new 24-bed forensic hospital or secure psychiatric hospital, and left the door open to a private firm running the facility.

And the Senate removed the House requirement that an abortion provider separate those services financially and physically from other health-care services the organization provides.

The provision is aimed at Planned Parenthood and the governor has both voted for and against health- care services contracts for the firm citing the same provision.

Removing the prohibition was just one part of the amendment proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who appears to be the liaison between the governor’s office and Senate Finance in the final days of work on the Senate budget.

The other part of the amendment included the provisions of House Bill 625, which bans abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy with no exception for fetal health, rape or incest, and makes a physician who performs an abortion after the time limit, criminally liable.

The Senate put HB 625 on the table last week, where it is likely to stay until the budget is resolved.

Sununu has always claimed to be pro-choice, but some pro-choice advocates are not so sure.

What the Senate did was give Sununu an out so he does not have to either veto or sign the bill and can say “I could not veto the budget for that one provision, but I don’t like it.”

The change would allow the usual Planned Parenthood contract to go to the Executive Council next fiscal year, but the current council is not at all likely to approve it.

When you see maneuvers like this, you always wonder why Democrats never seem to be able to do the same kind of thing.

The Senate also managed to find the money to do away with the $50 million across the board cut in the Health and Human Services budget but did not restore all the department’s positions the House removed from the budget.

Senate Finance also restored money to the Governor’s Scholarship Fund but left the higher education merger up in the air and likely to be determined in the budget conference committee.

Sununu proposed merging the two boards of trustees July 1, but the House instead created an 11-member commission to study the merger and all its implications, good and bad, and issue a report in January.

The House also gave the commission $1.5 million to do its work. Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, proposed an amendment with more specific expertise for the members of the commission and added $500,000 to give it $2 million for its work.

That amendment was not voted on by the Finance Committee and instead the members voted to remove the commission and the money.

Senate Finance also approved an alternative to the “divisive concepts” language, but the new language has also drawn criticism from groups opposing the original provision.

The opponents include public officials along with business, education, faith, and advocacy organizations.

Sununu had said he opposed the language in HB 544, and would veto the budget if it remains part of the package but has not commented on the alternative.

The Finance Committee also took out the House provision requiring the legislature to approve any state of emergency extension beyond the initial 21-day declaration.

The other issue was House Bill 417, which also required Executive Council approval to accept or expend federal money during an emergency and Fiscal Committee approval for spending items over $100,000.

Although those provisions remain in the compromise with the governor, there is also the provision the governor would be able to accept and spend money without legislative oversight to protect the immediate health, safety and welfare of the citizens of New Hampshire.

That has been the sticking point for both sides of the aisle with what has happened during the past 14 months, no legislative oversight over the spending.

The House Freedom Caucus registered its opposition saying the original restriction is critical to its support of the budget.

“Despite a stern warning by House Finance Committee Chair Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, about the cruciality of certain policy decisions being included in the proposed 2022-23 budget, the Senate chose to strip out necessary emergency powers reforms and other measures needed to ensure passage through the House,” the group said in a statement released last week.

“When the most pro-liberty Budget since 2011 passed the NH House, important policy elements were included in the budget trailer bill to address required emergency powers reforms. The language was included in the budget specifically to ensure that it would become law above the governor’s potential objections to restore a balance of powers to the New Hampshire government and add additional checks to the executive branch’s authority during a State of Emergency.”

The Senate will pass its version of the budget package Thursday, but there is a long and winding road ahead before a new biennial budget is approved by lawmakers and sent to the governor.