Budget negotiators reach agreement on elements of policy bill, including abortion ban

By: - June 14, 2021 5:46 pm
State flag and the State House dome

The state budget’s numbers and policies belong to us now. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

House and Senate budget negotiators look set to move ahead on a provision to ban abortions in New Hampshire after 24 weeks – one of a series of details worked out in a committee session Monday.

Speaking on behalf of House Republican leadership, Rep. Lynne Ober of Hudson said Monday that the House would “accede” to the Senate’s decision to add in the ban. That addition was made by the Senate in late May, during the final weeks of deliberations over the budget.

But Ober and other negotiators did not reach a conclusion on an effort to hold back state funding to Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health centers unless the centers physically separated their abortion services from the rest of their health care services. The House favors that provision; the Senate removed it last month. That conversation will be held later in the week. 

The comments came during a “committee of conference” meeting over House Bill 2, the sweeping policy bill that accompanies House Bill 1, New Hampshire’s two-year budget appropriations bill. 

Top lawmakers from the House and Senate Republican majorities will be meeting through the week to try to bridge differences between the House version of the budget and the Senate.

On Monday, negotiators moved through a lengthy list of sections that the two chambers agree on, including the “education freedom account” program.

That program would allow parents to withdraw children from public schools and take the state funding for that school with them, giving them around $4,000 a year to use toward private school tuition, home schooling, tutors, school supplies, and other expenses.

Psychiatric hospital moving ahead

The House agreed to add in $30 million to continue the planning and construction of a psychiatric hospital in the state, following an $8 million proposal passed in 2019. Previously, the House had removed that language, citing budget constraints and the need for planning. 

But Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, the lone Democrat on the committee Monday, raised concerns that the new $30 million appropriation does not contain a guarantee that the new hospital would not be administered by a private organization or company.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said the $8 million appropriation did prohibit private companies from controlling the hospital, and that the details could be worked out as the Department of Health and Human Services continued to work on its plan.

Compromise on DCYF positions

House negotiators also agreed – in spirit – to restore funding for 10 out of the 22 positions in the Division for Children, Youth and Families, the state’s child protection agency. The House had earlier taken out the 22 positions requested by Gov. Chris Sununu, arguing that DHHS would not be able to find enough workers to fill the vacancies.

But Senate negotiators pushed back, noting that the positions had first been added in 2019 in order to respond to a five-year spiral at the agency that resulted in a pair of high-profile deaths of children under DCYF care. The extra positions would help bring down the workload and reduce the number of mistakes.

On Monday, House Republicans on the committee of conference said they would agree to restoring 10 positions at the agency and allowing an additional 12 to be requested by DHHS in the future. But they did so with the agreement from the Senate to include a 3,000-employee cap at DHHS imposed as a way to keep down costs at the health department.

Thorny issues put off

Despite reaching agreement on dozens of Senate amendments to the budget Monday – a package numbering more than 300 pages – House and Senate negotiators put off the trickier debates for later. 

That included the “divisive concepts” bill, which seeks to ban public school teachers and public agencies from teaching certain lessons asserting that white supremacy, systemic racism, or implicit bias definitively exist. 

The Senate had dramatically changed the House’s version earlier this year; on Monday, Ober introduced a compromise amendment that will be debated later.

The two sides also put off a conversation on when to closing the Sununu Youth Services Center; House Republicans want the state’s juvenile corrections facility to shutter in 2022, while senators are pushing for a 2023 closure. And they put off discussions on whether to include a dental benefit in the state’s Medicaid program, whether to approve Sununu’s voluntary paid family leave program, and whether to eliminate the state’s “Gun Line” background check system for firearms buyers and defer to the FBI instead.

The committee will meet again Tuesday at 1 p.m. to pick up discussion. 

The two budget bills must be signed off by their committees of conference by Thursday. 

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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.

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