Abortion ban, vouchers, ‘divisive concepts’ dominate debate as Senate passes budget

A view of the NH Senate chamber
The budget bill heads to the House next, which must decide whether it accepts the changes or whether it would like to request a “committee of conference." (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire Senate voted to pass a $13.5 billion budget on party lines Thursday, handing the document back to the House after an exhaustive session stretching from morning into evening.

But it wasn’t the state spending items that took up the hours of debate on the floor. A last-minute inclusion of a ban on abortions after 24 weeks in New Hampshire drove an intensive discussion from all corners of the political map.

“This extreme bill chooses an arbitrary point in time at which abortion and providers would be criminalized,” said Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy. “. . . This amendment is a dangerous and far-reaching policy that has absolutely nothing to do with the state’s allocation of general funds.”

Soucy’s remarks came as part of an effort by Democrats to reverse the inclusion of the ban, which was introduced a week earlier and includes an exception for the health of the mother but not in the case of rape or incest. 

The comments also came at a heightened moment for abortion rights supporters in the state; hours earlier, Gov. Chris Sununu said he would not veto the budget over the ban and indicated he supported it.

For members of both sides of the abortion ban debate Thursday, personal experiences and backgrounds rose to the fore. 

“As many of – or all of – you know, I am pregnant,” said Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat. “Twenty-seven weeks pregnant, specifically. We’ve been fortunate so far in this pregnancy that from what we know our baby is healthy.”

But, Perkins Kwoka added, should the ban be signed into law, she would have fewer options in the event of a medical complication that revealed that her child would not survive out of the womb.

“Do you honestly believe that I would not do what is best at each moment for the life I’m growing, that I’m responsible for?” Perkins Kwoka asked. “It is the most sacred duty and one I would beg of you not ever to dare to think that we as complex, highly intelligent, and capable mothers, and pregnant people, would ever dismiss or take lightly.”

Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, brought her own children into the discussion to present a different perspective on late-term abortions.

“Just because a child is not perfect, just because a child has a medical problem, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve life, it doesn’t deserve a chance,” Carson said. “And that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to take away the chance of that child to have a life.”

For almost an hour, debate continued. Senators drew from personal experience, family histories, and stories from constituents. But the Democrats’ attempted reversal failed, falling 10-14 on party lines. 

Democrats then brought up a string of amendments to water down the 24-week ban, each of which proved unsuccessful. 

The chamber shot down an amendment by Sen. Becky Whitley, a Concord Democrat, to amend the 24-week ban by adding exceptions for a pregnancy that is the product of rape or incest. Speaking against that suggestion, Sen. Regina Birdsell, a Hampstead Republican, argued that victims of rape or incest have the first 24 weeks to decide whether they want to pursue a termination of their child.

Senators voted against an amendment that would explicitly protect the right to an abortion up to that 24-week period. 

And the chamber rejected a proposal by Sen. Tom Sherman, a practicing gastroenterologist, to remove the criminal penalties for doctors who carry out abortions against the statute. Presently, the law includes fines of up to $100,000 and up to seven years in prison. 

“Nowhere else in the practice of medicine do we face similar potential consequences for following our experience and training in the treatment of patients,” said Sherman, a Rye Democrat. “This bill will have a chilling impact on all those who practice medicine in these fields.”

Birdsell disagreed, countering that an attempt to take away the criminal penalties would remove the teeth from the ban. 

“If we decide that abortions in the final three months of a pregnancy should be eliminated, and I believe we should, then we must enforce that decision,” Birdsell said. 

Abortion wasn’t the only issue debated. Over a multi-hour hearing, the Senate took up a slew of last-minute amendments from Democrats to add spending and policy priorities back into the budget. 

Most of the proposals were voted down.

Education freedom accounts

Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to eject a longstanding Republican priority Thursday: the creation of “education freedom accounts.” The accounts would allow eligible parents with children in public schools to withdraw their children and take their student’s state funding share with them, with the ability to use that share on tuition at a private school.

Democrats and public school advocates have fiercely opposed that program, arguing it will siphon public funds from school districts that are already struggling for funding.

“New Hampshire provides the smallest share of school funding – public school funding – of any other state in the country,” said Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat. “And this downshifting of costs onto local taxpayers leads to higher property taxes.”

Republicans, meanwhile, said the measure was simply an avenue toward school choice, and that the impact was being exaggerated.

“We hear the sky is falling,” said Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “We heard it when charter schools were first enacted. The sky didn’t fall. We heard it with the educational tax credit scholarship program for low-income families. The sky didn’t fall then either.”

DCYF positions

The Senate came together over restoring funding for workers at the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families – partially, at least. In a 24-0 vote, the chamber voted to restore 12 of the 22 positions at DCYF. Those positions had been cut in the House’s version of the budget.

But senators split over whether to fund the additional 10. Democrats argued the full 22 positions are necessary to meet a years-long goal to staff up the child-protection agency after a series of deaths of children under its care. Republicans noted that the department has struggled to fill those positions due to a workforce shortage, and said the funds could be restored if and when the positions did attract workers.

‘Divisive concepts’ bill round two

For months, a bill in the House known as the “divisive concepts” bill has dominated the oxygen in the State House. Thursday’s Senate session was no exception. Speeches brimmed with passion and urgency.

“This policy is the thought police,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat. “It censors our right to free speech by preventing discussion of racism, anti-Semitism, and gender bias, except in historical context. Not as current events. That’s not acceptable.”

An updated version of the bill would bar school teachers and other public employees from teaching that a person of one race, gender, or protected class is inherently biased or oppressive against another; and also that people of one protected class have inherent social advantages over another. 

Democrats, civil rights advocates, teachers, and the state’s business lobby have spoken against the bill, arguing that while it contains new caveats protecting workplace training programs and some classroom discussions, the caveats contradict other provisions that could make it confusing for a teacher to know where the line is.

Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, pointed to his career as a college professor, noting that in the late 20th century academics had to fear losing their jobs for exploring areas like feminism and LGBTQ rights. 

Others, like Kahn, invoked their own identities. 

“Some people assign negative meanings to my being a Jew,” Kahn said. “That’s implicit bias. I also found as a young adult that I didn’t need to identify as Jewish. That a white male – who needed to know? I could hide my Jewishness, the same way my mom, as a blond, blue-eyed woman learned to do in Germany.”

But Republicans, including Bradley, insisted that the bill does not prevent teaching about the concept of implicit bias, but that it prevents a teacher from singling out a student for their race. And he said it would allow workplace training programs to continue, too. 

“Now, you know, I’m not an author,” Bradley said. “I do think I understand a little bit of the English language. I think this is 100 percent clear: ‘Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to to prohibit racial, sexual religious, or other workplace sensitivity training.’ ” 

Planned Parenthood funding

The chamber also voted 11-13 against a proposal by Rosenwald to set aside $1.2 million in state funds to help Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health facilities backfill a gap in federal funding caused by a policy under the Trump administration.

In a rare break, Republican Sen. Erin Hennessey of Littleton joined Democrats in voting for the amendment. 

Statewide property tax cut

When Republicans unveiled a $100 million cut to New Hampshire’s statewide property tax – the tax that property owners pay in addition to their town’s property taxes – they framed it as a long-needed boost for cities and towns.

But Democrats, who often champion local property-tax relief, disagreed this time. In a debate Thursday, Kahn argued that the reduction would be spread among towns across the board, whether they were “property rich” or “property poor.” Kahn argued for a more targeted approach geared toward struggling towns.

To Republicans, though, the across-the-board decrease was the fairest approach for everyone. The amendment fell 10-14. 

Small-business tax relief

Members of the Senate did find agreement in one area: changing the law to help New Hampshire businesses access federal COVID-19 aid. 

Earlier this week, the House voted down Senate Bill 107, which would have adjusted a provision that has shut out some businesses from accessing the state’s Main Street Relief Fund. Under the present rules, any business that was recently formed before the pandemic – set up after May 26, 2019 – is ineligible for the funds. 

Republicans in the House had struck down a standalone bill version of the proposal, puzzling supporters of the bill

In a bipartisan voice vote, the Senate voted to add the provision into the budget. 

Business tax reductions

Early on in the daylong discussion, an age-old debate returned. Republican budget writers are pushing to reduce many of the state’s taxes, from the business profits and business enterprise taxes to the meals and rooms tax and interest and dividends tax.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, attempted to reverse those tax cuts.

Introducing an amendment that would remove the proposed reduction of the business profits tax from 7.7 percent to 7.5 percent, D’Allesandro brought up the creation of that tax in 1970, under Republican Gov. Walter Peterson, arguing that the tax was an important bulwark against the need for a state income tax, and that reducing it would deliver a hit to revenues and only benefit larger corporations.

“This is reverse Robin Hood when you reduce taxes, because we’re taking from the poor and we’re giving to the rich,” D’Allesandro said. 

Republicans have long seen it differently, countering that the steady reduction in business taxes from 8.5 percent in 2015 to 7.7 percent now has not seen a corresponding drop in revenues for the state. 

“We (suggest) allowing corporations to keep more of their money means denying help to the poor,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “That is so wrong. You vilify the very people, the big corporations that provide the huge amount of our tax revenues, and a huge number of our jobs.”

The budget bill heads to the House next, which must decide whether it accepts the changes or whether it would like to request a “committee of conference” – a meeting between designees from both parties to iron out disagreements.