GOP flank holds as House approves budget

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
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Apr. 7—BEDFORD — The Republican-led New Hampshire House of Representatives cleared a major hurdle Wednesday with the approval of a $13.6 billion two-year state budget plan.

The 205-178 vote for the amended spending bill (HB 1) came at the outset of a three-day marathon session at the NH Sportsplex.

The House has to meet a Friday deadline to act on all its bills for the 2021 session.

To win over conservative Republicans, House budget writers made several changes to Gov. Chris Sununu's spending plan that included punting on his favored merger of higher education, dumping a new student loan program and nearly zeroing out a $35 million plan for public school infrastructure.

In response, Sununu said the House budget "went off the rails" and wasn't properly financed.

Sununu said he would seek significant changes to the budget when the spending plan reaches the state Senate.

The House GOP strategy worked .

While the roll call vote was not available earlier Wednesday, the outcome closely lined up with the 212-186 GOP majority in the House.

"It's pretty clear they all stuck together," said Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, about the GOP caucus.

House Finance Chairman Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, said the 6% spending increase in this proposed budget was much lower than the one contained in the plan adopted by the Democratic-led Legislature nearly two years ago.

The budget also contains four different cuts to business, hospitality and dividend taxes to help businesses recover from the pandemic, he said.

Weyler noted that it also would pay $100 million of a statewide property tax in 2023, which should lead to across-the-board cuts in local property taxes.

"This will serve our state well for the next two years," Weyler said.

Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, said this spending plan contains $153 million less in aid to communities than the current budget.

It also includes back-of-the-budget cuts totaling $73 million in the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This is a seriously flawed budget that hurts New Hampshire taxpayers on so many levels," Heath said.

Sununu asked to up spending

Last March 3, Sununu had asked House budget writers to increase spending by $70 million over the plan he had presented just a month earlier, because revenues came in significantly above estimates.

"Few of those increases were included in this House budget, even though there was additional revenue," said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, who chaired the House Finance Committee that produced the current budget.

House Democrats offered many amendments to the spending plan, along with proposed changes to its trailer bill (HB 2), which makes necessary changes in state law needed to carry out the budget.

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, protested that many of the Democratic amendments were not offered in committee but were instead presented at the 11th hour Wednesday.

"I am disappointed this particular amendment was hidden from us until very recently," Edwards said of one request.

The closest vote over an amendment was whether to take out the controversial bill (HB 544) that would ban teaching by schools about "divisive concepts," such as Critical Race Theory, which challenges liberal approaches to racial justice.

"This legislation is an affront to democracy and to the safety of our society for marginalized people. House Republicans have demonstrated that they will stop at nothing to ignore diversity and even actively suppress it by trying to ram through this evil legislation in the budget," said Rep. Jean Jeudy, D-Manchester and a native of Haiti.

Close vote on teaching ban

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice and Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, backed the language, while admitting it was likely the U.S. Supreme Court would have to settle a federal challenge to it.

New Hampshire parents should know their children can't be taught that Whites are inherently racist, Lynn said.

"This does not in any way impede on anyone's First Amendment rights to advocate these points of view," Lynn said.

The vote to strip the language failed, 193-186.

Sununu already has already said that if the provision is contained in that separate bill, he will veto it.

The House rejected a move to add $1.3 million in grants to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

The Biden administration already has announced it will restore Title X grants to these clinics the Trump administration had eliminated.

But family planning advocates maintained that additional money was needed from New Hampshire taxpayers because the Biden spending wasn't likely to arrive until March 2022.

Rep. Edwards said Planned Parenthood was not hurting for money.

"This amendment is a recovery act for Planned Parenthood," Edwards said. "This is an organization that does not need our charity."

klandrigan@unionleader.com