The speeches are wrapped and the amendments are finalized. As of last week, New Hampshire’s two sprawling budget bills – House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 – had cleared the Senate on party-line votes after passing the House in April.
But that isn’t the end of the journey. Here’s what’s next for the state budget.
Even though the House and the Senate have each passed a budget, the final documents the two Republican-led bodies produced are significantly different. Now the two sides will have to smooth over those differences. And they have less than a week to do it.
Starting Friday, a special panel known as a “committee of conference” consisting of House and Senate negotiators will meet to discuss House Bill 1, the $13.5 billion two-year appropriations bill.
A similar committee will meet next week to take up House Bill 2, the accompanying policy bill that this year contains hot-button items, such as a 24-week abortion ban and the “divisive concepts” bill.
Most of the negotiators will be Republicans, following House tradition for the parties in power. According to House rules, lawmakers may only participate on committees of conference if they voted for the original bill in their chamber; the point, theoretically, is to come to an agreement on a bill all parties want to pass.
Because no House Democrats voted for the budget, no Democratic representative is eligible for the committee.
The Senate doesn’t have that participation rule. One Democratic senator will be part of the negotiations.
Still, even with one-party control, the House and Senate could have some negotiating hurdles.
Back in April, just after the House had sent its version of the budget to the Senate, House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, sent senators a list of provisions that he said needed to stay in order to guarantee House Republican votes. That list included a forced separation of abortion services for Planned Parenthood, the anti-critical-race-theory “divisive concepts” bill, and two measures seeking to curb Gov. Chris Sununu’s COVID-19 emergency powers directive.
Since then, some of those provisions have been deleted or altered by the Senate – though most have remained. Weyler will be chairing the committee of conference that begins meeting Friday.
Final lawmaker approval
The timeline to accomplish all this is short: Under House rules, a compromise budget must be unanimously agreed to by all members of the committee of conference by June 17. If certain members of the committee are holding up that agreement, the House speaker or Senate president can replace them with someone else.
After June 17, the revised version of the House and Senate budget bills will go before the House first for a final vote and then to the Senate if the first vote is successful. How the budget is tweaked in the final stretch could affect how many members of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative wing of the chamber, go along with the final product.
But House Speaker Pro Tempore Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican, said she didn’t think that faction would cause problems in the end.
“I would certainly hope not because, you know, we can’t be focused on one issue,” Rice said in an interview. “What we’re doing is what’s in the best interest of the citizens of this state, and I believe in the end we’re all going to come together and understand that we can’t all have everything that we want.”
A signature from the governor
When the budget bills are finally passed by both chambers, they’ll head to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk.
Once again, the timing is tight. The budget must be in place by the end of the month; July 1 is the first day of state fiscal year 2022, the first of the two-year biennium.
Sununu has said he is broadly supportive of the Senate amended bill – even with last-minute changes adding an abortion ban and an updated version of the “divisive concepts” bill he had previously denounced. But he said he would await changes made by the two sides.
“From a financial aspect, it’s a tremendously good budget,” he said on a radio show last week. “You know, there’s a lot of other things in there that we have to see.”