The Bulletin Board

Republican lawmakers brace for budget backlash from House ‘Freedom Caucus’ wing

By: - June 23, 2021 6:00 pm
The state house behind a historical marker

Not only does redistricting play a role in the design of the district boundaries for the Granite State’s congressional, state, and county offices, it plays a vital role in our communities and will affect our day-to-day lives for the next decade. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Three months after they were introduced, New Hampshire’s two budget bills – House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 – are almost at the finish line. The amended version of the two bills will come up for a vote in the House and Senate Thursday; Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he will sign them if passed. 

But before Sununu and Republicans can celebrate, they have one final hurdle to clear: their own members. 

A contingent of libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House have voiced disapproval over the amended version of the state budget, arguing that House and Senate negotiators weakened reforms that were supposed to limit the governor’s emergency powers. Now, some Republican leaders are worried those members could withhold key votes for the final package on Thursday.

“It’s either gonna pass or it’s not, right?” said Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican, in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t know.”

The potential for a backlash has been broadcast for months. In April, shortly after the House sent its version of the budget to the Senate, House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler sent an email with a list of provisions that he said needed to stay in the budget in order to secure full House Republican backing.

Among the demands were strict limits on the governor’s emergency powers, the exclusion of the governor’s paid family leave bill, and the “divisive concepts” bill to limit teaching in schools that systemic oppression and implicit bias definitively exist. 

“You gotta listen to these things,” Weyler said in an interview at the time. “I can’t afford to lose 12 votes.”

Those same demands have proven sticking points this week, even after House and Senate budget negotiators worked to find a compromise budget. A more lenient version of the emergency powers limits was added and the paid family leave program is moving forward. 

Now, amid grumbling from the House Freedom Caucus, the libertarian wing of the House Republican Party, Smith said that members of leadership are attempting to smooth over the differences and get enough yes votes for the budget to pass. 

“I think we’re on the education stage now though, because we did pretty good in getting what the House wanted compared to everything else,” Smith said. “Did we get the version that we passed? No. But, you know, we got the idea.” 

Still, some bumps along the way have made getting there difficult, Smith added. 

The April email from Weyler, for one, was a surprise.

“Nobody asked him to do that,” Smith said. “It was just a thing Ken did.” 

Sending the email to senators in both parties was a tactical mistake, Smith argued, binding legislative leaders to positions that were difficult to stick with.

“Don’t make the list public, because then when you go back you cave to pressure,” he said. “So I wish he hadn’t done it.”

Then there was the matter of Sununu, who came out strongly against the House budget, registering opposition to some of its components, and telling reporters that the budget process had gone “off the rails.” The Senate, Sununu said, would fix what the House had done.

“The governor, honestly, he could have been a little quieter, not slapped us around in the press,” Smith said. “It did not make the caucus want to support the governor.”

“He used a lot of invective that was really unprofessional,” Smith said of Sununu. “Sure, you can quote that. If he had just calmed down and . . . instead said there are technical flaws in the bill and for that reason I can’t support this, fair enough.”

Sununu’s comments made it difficult to secure the support of the Freedom Caucus, already frustrated with the governor’s executive orders mandating masks and imposing fines to businesses over COVID-19 orders, Smith said. 

But Smith pointed to another factor driving the sense of rebelliousness within his party: physical distance.

“We have a lot of new, super enthusiastic representatives who are in a unique position: They’ve never been here,” Smith said, speaking from the third floor offices of the speaker’s office. 

With committee sessions occurring over remote Zoom hearings, and socially distanced House gatherings occurring at a parking lot and a Bedford sports center, the newer members are missing the sense of scale that generally hits freshmen lawmakers, Smith said. And there have been fewer chances for bipartisan conversations and more opportunities for division, he argued.

“They’ve never been in a House session in that room, and it really does have a big effect,” he said. 

Throughout the week, Republicans from former speaker Bill O’Brien to current Speaker Sherman Packard have reached out to Republican hold-outs on the budget. The bills will come up for a vote during a House session Thursday designed to address all bills amended by committees of conference last week. 

Smith said he hopes the other Republican priorities in the budget bills – from tax cuts to a 24-week abortion ban – will get the legislation over the hill. 

“You never know until they push the buttons, but how can anybody in anything named the ‘Freedom Caucus,’ vote down this budget?” he said.

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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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