Budget dispute: House Finance chairman issues ultimatum to Senate colleagues

By: - April 15, 2021 6:05 am
NH state house

House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler urged the Senate Finance Committee to keep a number of budget provisions in place. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A week after passing New Hampshire’s two-year budget onto the Senate, one prominent House Republican is urging his Senate colleagues to keep some of its most controversial items in place – or risk defeat on the House floor.

In an email Wednesday, House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler urged the Senate Finance Committee to keep a number of provisions in place, including a ban on teaching “divisive concepts” in schools and language passing control over the COVID-19 state of emergency to the Legislature.

Failing to keep those items, Weyler wrote, could result in the budget failing to pass in June.

“We now have the lowest Republican Majority in my 30-plus years in the House,” Weyler, a Kingston Republican, said in the email, which was shared with the Bulletin and confirmed by Weyler Wednesday afternoon.

“If I go back to the House with major changes, then I will not get a bill passed,” he said.

Republicans took back control of the 400-member New Hampshire House in 2020, but did so by only 27 votes, the slimmest majority in at least two decades, according to public records. In his email, Weyler argued that the narrow margin meant that the Senate should listen to concerns of the House Republicans, particularly its most conservative members.

“I had several meetings in our caucus to try to get the votes,” Weyler wrote to senators. “Deals were made. If you now decide that some of the bills must come out of HB 2, then the Committee of Conference will not lead to the results that I believe we all desire.”

An email sent by House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, to the Senate Finance Committee, Wednesday, April 14.

The Legislature is halfway through the budget process. On April 7, the House passed House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, the two budget-related bills, passing them on to the other chamber. The Senate Finance Committee has since begun hearing from state agencies, the start of a month-and-a-half process before the two chambers hash out their differences in a “committee of conference.”

Among the items Weyler considers necessary in the budget is the “divisive concepts” legislation, which would prohibit teachers and state officials from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”

Republicans have argued that it protects students and others from instruction on structural racism that singles out one ethnicity or race as responsible.

Democrats and civil rights advocates argue it would squelch free speech and nuanced historical instruction in schools, and hamper diversity and anti-racism training in the state’s police academy.

Weyler also urged the Senate to kill Gov. Chris Sununu’s voluntary paid family leave plan, which would allow private companies to opt into a state-administered insurance program buoyed by New Hampshire’s 10,000 state employees.

“This was such a feature of the Feltes campaign that it now has a partisan label,” Weyler wrote, referring to former Democratic state senator Dan Feltes, who ran unsuccessfully against Sununu in 2020. “Some are upset that the Governor wants to give it to the unions with no payback, others believe that it will always be abused.”

And the House chairman warned the Senate committee to keep in two measures that would push back against Sununu’s emergency powers – one to assert Legislative control over states of emergency declared by the governor and one to allow businesses to get refunds for fines issued by the state for COVID-19 violations.

“After a year, it seems improbable that an astute politician like Chris Sununu not only is still maintaining restrictions, but has never come before the legislature to make his case,” Weyler wrote. “Legislators want a say.”

In an interview, Weyler said the requests came after discussions with skeptical House Republicans, many of whom are reluctant to vote yes on any budget.

“‘You want us to vote for the budget, this is how it’s got to be,’” he said, describing colleagues’ comments. “I had one person that said, ‘This is the first budget I’ve ever voted for in four terms or five terms.’ So, you know, you gotta listen to these things. I can’t afford to lose 12 votes.”

But the demands complicate the task for the Senate – and Senate Finance Chairman Gary Daniels – which must pass a budget by early June that can be accepted by both the House and the governor. Those two parties are increasingly at odds.

“The House budget process has gone completely off the rails,” Sununu said in a press conference in late March. “They passed a budget that is not fiscally balanced and packed with non-budgetary items that have no place in HB 2.

“By the time that the Senate gets through it, hopefully it comes to my desk as something that’s balanced, that’s financially responsible,” he added.

In an interview Tuesday before Weyler’s email, Daniels, a Milford Republican, declined to comment in detail on the House’s additions and changes to Sununu’s budget. But he said that the Senate would be attuned to what it needed in the budget to get the votes in its chamber and the House.

“There are certain things that they had to put in or give up in order to get the votes to pass the House,” Daniels said, referring to House budget writers. “And so, obviously, when we’re building ours, we’re gonna have to take into consideration that, the environment, and the economy at the time.”

Daniels was not immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]