$13.5 billion budget and policy bill headed to governor’s desk

By: - June 24, 2021 5:37 pm
NH state house

At the State House, committees are back to meeting in person, and hallways are filling with lobbyists and interest groups. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In the end, the threats of Republican rebellion fizzled. 

The New Hampshire Legislature passed a two-year, $13.5 billion budget Thursday, sending a compromise budget to Gov. Chris Sununu and sidestepping concerns from Republican leaders that libertarian-minded members of their party would upend the final deal. 

Voting 198-181, the Republican-dominated House voted to advance House Bill 2, the policy bill packed with business tax cuts, an abortion ban at 24 weeks, and a provision banning public schools from certain teaching about systemic oppression and implicit bias. 

The bill also includes a voluntary paid family leave program pushed by Sununu; an “education freedom account” program allowing public school money to go to private school tuition; an increase in the state’s rainy day fund; new powers to allow the Legislature to overturn emergency orders issued by the governor; and the creation of a new Department of Energy in the state. 

Rep. Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican and the House majority leader, hailed the changes.

“We cut taxes, we reined in the Democrats’ bloated spending from the last term, we provided property-tax relief, we increased education choice, we provided much-needed reform to the governor’s emergency powers, and we prohibited the teaching of false ideas that certain individuals are inherently racist due to the color of their skin,” he said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, the chamber voted in favor of House Bill 1, the $13.5 billion appropriations bill that funds New Hampshire departments and positions, 208-172. The Senate had voted for both bills along party lines, 14-10.

Both bills now move through the enrollment process and will eventually head to the governor, who has indicated he will sign them.

“Historic tax cuts, property tax relief, and paid family medical leave delivered all in one sweeping action is a win for every citizen and family in this state,” Sununu said in a statement after the bills passed. 

The House’s vote Thursday put to rest fears from Republicans that a vocal minority of their party would topple the policy bill. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, a subset of the Republican caucus, had objected in recent days to compromises the House made with the Senate to get approval of the budget. 

Those members had complained that the budget did not contain strong enough guardrails against the governor’s use of emergency powers, which has rankled libertarians since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a historically slim Republican majority, a rebellion by 15 members of the party could have tanked the final vote. 

But after a week of private appeals to wavering members, Republicans pulled their caucus in line; the policy bill passed by a margin of 17 votes. Only around 10 Republicans defected against HB 2, and none in the party spoke against the budget bills on the House floor. 

Still, some said they were supporting the bill reluctantly. 

“I will be supporting the budget, but it’ll definitely be with my fingers pinched over my nose,” said Rep. Terry Roy, a Deerfield Republican, in an interview Wednesday night. 

“It was a disappointment,” he added. “But, I mean, everything in politics is incremental, and we did get some change. And we’re going to refile some legislation first thing in the fall.”

Instead, with little Republican dissent aired publicly, Thursday’s House and Senate sessions were dominated by concerns from Democrats and rebuttals from Republicans.

“This budget weakens individual freedom in the Live Free or Die state, taking away reproductive rights and dictating how history and racism can be taught in our schools,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat.

Abortion rights

One of the more striking moments of the day came from a visual presentation. 

Speaking against a mandate that all women seeking abortions must receive ultrasounds, Sen. Tom Sherman held up a vaginal probe on the floor. 

“Let me explain the procedure,” said Sherman, a Rye Democrat and practicing gastroenterologist. “The woman must disrobe from the waist down. She is then placed in the lithotomy position with her legs in the air and her legs apart. A probe, a rigid probe, is placed into the vagina to the level of the vaginal fornix, just to the side of the cervix.”

“Only this probe is felt to be the standard of practice for determining gestational age in early pregnancy,” he continued. “And you are requiring this of women who want to have an abortion.”

The visual was rebuked by Senate President Chuck Morse, who repeated a Senate rule against props on the floor. But the moment highlighted what was a common target among Democrats Thursday: the budget’s ban on abortions at 24 weeks with limited exceptions. 

Some took aim at the ultrasound requirement, which applies to all abortions before 24 weeks in the state. “The vast majority of abortions occur during the first trimester when many women would have no medical need for an ultrasound,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat.

Others said the 24-week ban itself was at issue.

In the House, Rep. Amanda Elizabeth Toll spoke of her own experience to underscore her objection.

“As a teenager, I had an unplanned pregnancy and needed an abortion,” the freshman Keene Democrat said. “Having an abortion allowed me to go to college, then to graduate school to receive a master’s in education. I’ve been able to own a small business, teach yoga, and become a state representative advocating for public policy and grounded in compassion and justice. It allowed me to have, when I was ready, a child who is now six, and the love of my life.”

Abortions are rare after 24 weeks, but Toll and others said the ban would prevent parents who find out that their child has a terminal condition from undergoing an abortion late in the pregnancy. 

Some representatives said a decision by House Republicans not to backfill money to Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health centers lost during the Trump era would jeopardize care for nearly 15,000 people who rely on it for free or low-cost health care. 

In a personal address, Rep. Joshua Query, a Manchester Democrat, recalled visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic for the first time during COVID-19 after learning they had been exposed to HIV. Query was unemployed, uninsured, and unable to afford the $43,000 bill for the necessary treatment and medication. The clinic treated Query at no cost and helped them get medication for free.

“If Planned Parenthood hadn’t been able to help me with that first round of medication, I could say, almost with certainty, that I would be HIV positive today. Planned Parenthood saved my life,” Query said. “My story may feel unique. But I represent so many people in our state with lost insurance coverage or who are underinsured.”

No Republicans in the House addressed the abortion language. But during debate in the morning, Senate Republicans pushed back at Democrats’ characterizations.

Sen. Regina Birdsell, a Hampstead Republican, pointed to 18 states with similar bans. “If New Hampshire is getting between a woman and her doctor, so are 18, 20, and 24 states,” she said. 

Democrats have noted that other states with 24-week bans have more exceptions for victims of rape and incest – which New Hampshire’s law does not have – and lesser criminal penalties for doctors. Under the New Hampshire law, a doctor in violation of the ban could be penalized with up to seven years in jail. 

But Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, said New Hampshire is one of just seven states with no time limits on abortion at all, and argued that the state’s status quo is extreme, not the proposed change.

“Forty-three states in this country have agreed that at some point, you have to consider the life of the infant,” she said.

And Carson said the depiction of the ultrasound mandate as oppressive was incorrect. The ultrasounds would give more information to patients, not less, she argued.

“How is that anti-woman?” she said. “In fact, I think it’s probably empowering women to take control over their bodies and their lives.”

Tax cuts

One provision driving Republican support for the budget – including Sununu’s – is a bevy of tax cuts. The budget lowers New Hampshire’s business profits tax, business enterprise tax, meals and rooms tax, and statewide education property tax, and gradually eliminates the interest and dividends tax over five years.

But that didn’t stop Democrats from objecting to the tax cuts’ inclusion.

In a fiery speech at the outset of the Senate debate, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro tore into the business tax cuts, calling them unnecessary and beneficial only to a handful of rich companies that pay them.

“Nobody, not one person at our budget hearing, requested a reduction in business taxes,” the Manchester Democrat said. He argued the tax cuts would not bring increased prosperity to average Granite Staters.

“I hope my colleagues will think about it, and think about the 1.3 million people that we need to serve,” D’Allesandro said. “Think about those 76 businesses that pay 48 percent of the tax and that they’re gonna get a nice bonus. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That’s Robin Hood in reverse.”

Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, made a similar argument about the $100 million reduction to the statewide education property tax in 2023, which some analysts have said will benefit only richer towns when coupled with an end to previous aid. 

“When you hear that $100 million amount, you need to remember that $15.2 million of that is going to the highest property valuation communities,” Kahn said. 

The Democrats’ concerns fueled Republican counterattacks. 

Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican, noted that past Democrats’ claims that cuts to the business taxes would ravage the state’s revenue streams had not materialized. 

In 2019, Democrats said that allowing the business profits tax to drop to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent would cause a budget hole, Giuda recounted.

“We’re now well past that point of time and we are running a $25 million a month surplus, because of those tax cuts,” Giuda argued. 

“We should continue the reductions, which continue to let our coffers grow because of those reductions,” he added. “And put away the flawed notion that wealth is finite and we should tax those that have it beyond what’s reasonable.”

Rep. Steven Smith, the deputy House speaker, also invoked Democrats’ past pronouncements. And he said that tax cuts were the best way for lawmakers to serve their constituents.

“It’s not their money,” he said, speaking of school districts. “It’s not my money. It’s not your money. It’s the people’s money, and we’re supposed to be here to keep Concord’s grubby paws off of it.”

Divisive concepts

Democrats in both chambers rallied against one final lightning rod: the final version of the state’s “divisive concepts” bill. 

The legislation bars public school teachers and public employees from teaching that a person of one race, gender, or class is superior or advantaged over another, and that a person is implicitly oppressive against another race or class. Critics have argued that it prevents teaching about implicit bias and structural racism and sexism. 

In a speech drawing from her experience as a refugee from Afghanistan, Concord Democratic Rep. Safiya Wazir said the language, which would allow lawsuits against school districts and professional licensing consequences for teachers, was reminiscent of what she had fled under Taliban rule.

“I bring a special perspective to this issue, having been born in a country where basic freedoms were denied. In this place, an open exchange of ideas (was) not always possible,” Wazir said. This legislation takes us backward, making us like the . . . countries that suffer from human rights crises. We call ourselves the greatest country, and we should allow discussion and the fullness of all learning opportunities.”

Republicans in both chambers objected to the characterizations of the bill, noting that the language explicitly allows the teaching of the concepts in a historical context.

“It’s very clear: We’re not telling you that you can’t teach history,” said Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican. “We’re allowing academic freedom. What we don’t want you to do is to tell my 12-year-old daughter at Timberlane School that because she’s white that she is inferior.”

After hours of debate, the differences were unbridgeable.

“Here’s what you’re voting against today,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, rattling off provisions ranging from tax cuts to increases to DCYF workers to expansions to the highway fund to funding for the developmental disability wait list.

“We need to protect the interests of people that need our help, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s families with a disabled child, whether it’s substance abuse, and a whole range of other things,” Bradley continued. “That’s, my friends, what a no vote means.”

“Let me tell you a few other things that you’re voting against,” D’Allesandro retorted. “. . . You’re voting against . . . eliminating the interest and dividends tax, you’re voting against silencing free speech, you’re voting against restricting a woman’s right to choose.”

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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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