Apr. 3—House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, faces the toughest test of his new leadership this week as he tries to hold together his narrow Republican majority to pass a proposed two-year, $13 billion state budget plan.
With a 212-186 GOP edge, Packard and Co. can't afford a dozen House Republicans to stray, for this would mean the budget would fall apart when it comes up for a final vote Wednesday at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford.
By all accounts, however, he is going to have to do it without the help of popular Gov. Chris Sununu.
To win over fiscal conservatives, Packard and House Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, convinced GOP budget writers over the past few weeks to strip the spending plan of several of Sununu's key projects over the past few weeks.
Within hours of the partisan House Finance committee voting, 12-9, to recommend the changed plan, Sununu dismissed its work.
"The House budget process has gone completely off the rails. They passed a budget that is not fiscally balanced and packed with non-budgetary items that have no place in HB2," Sununu said, referring to the budget trailer bill that makes changes in state law to carry out the budget.
"Nevertheless, we trust the Senate will do the right thing, and pass a final budget that is fiscally sound while delivering tax cuts for the people of New Hampshire."
According to sources, Sununu was particularly unhappy the House budget includes a provision to weaken a governor's power in dealing with future emergencies.
A small but vocal House GOP minority has been critical of Sununu's steps to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, considering the state-imposed restrictions on the economy to be constitutional overreach.
The proposed House GOP budget would erase any governor's future emergency order, unless the Legislature votes every 21 days to extend it.
Sununu brandishes veto
Sununu told WKBK-AM radio host Dan Mitchell in Keene last week that he would consider vetoing the budget if that provision remained in the final bill.
"Yes. Yes. The irresponsibility, frankly, of trying to take away emergency powers in a crisis situation is silly," Sununu said.
House Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, said he's confident the House GOP caucus will stick together given the high stakes.
"It's a great consensus budget. We are spending less, collecting less, cutting taxes as well," Smith said in an interview. "This is an ideal Republican budget.
"I think the caucus has gotten the message we need to stick together. This is the most important work we'll do over the next two years."
House Democrats praised Weyler for giving their party the opportunity to influence the spending plan.
"We were made to feel part of the process and we appreciate that, Mr. Chairman," said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, who led the House budget-writing group until Republicans took over the House in last November's elections.
But they expressed surprise and dismay at many alterations. One of the sharpest exchanges was over abortion rights.
House Republicans budget writers tacked on to the trailer bill a requirement that all family planning providers must make abortion clinics "physically and financially" separate from the rest of the services they offer, such as cancer screenings, contraception dispensing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
"I was shocked to hear the chairman say we've got to include this in order to get the budget through the House," said Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, who serves on the finance panel.
"This is an absurd and arbitrary attack on reproductive health care. Let's be clear. This amendment defunds Planned Parenthood and other family planning providers at the height of a pandemic."
Rogers said the change caused her to conclude House Republicans were overconfident.
"They have to know putting in the Planned Parenthood language in means they won't get a single House Democrat," Rogers said.
This is another issue that would make Sununu uncomfortable.
Sununu supports abortion rights, but he retains strong support among those opposed to abortion, in part because the Legislature has rarely advanced the anti-abortion agenda.
Early skirmish surprises some
"I've had a difficult time understanding the strategy for the governor to go off against the House budget," said Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity.
As a former House chief of staff, Moore has experience trying to maintain political support for budget priorities over the course of several months while the final product is being put together.
"Regardless of what the governor had to say of late, this was going to be a June problem," said Moore, who has a close working relationship with both House GOP leadership and Sununu's office.
He said Sununu "has to figure out a way to get conservative buy-in for any compromise budget that comes out of House and Senate talks later on this year."
The non-partisan Reaching Higher NH organization was pleased at changes the House budget made to increase state aid for school districts.
The plan saved school districts $16.7 million in lost federal grants by permitting all cities and towns to receive grants based on their enrollments in free-and-reduced school lunch programs before COVID-19.
Those enrollments fell during the pandemic because all school children were judged to be eligible for free school meals.
This would preserve $3.7 million in state aid for Manchester, $2.2 million for Nashua and about $490,000 for Keene.
House Democrats pointed out the plan has $90 million less in school aid than the current budget, which means Manchester will get $11.9 million less over the next two years.
Sununu also wasn't happy to learn the House budget nearly zeroed out his proposed $30 million-a-year school infrastructure fund.
House budget writers instead moved $28 million of that spending into the Building Aid program, which would revive state support for local school construction projects that had been suspended from 2010 to 2019.
More tax cuts added
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, said the proposed budget cut even more taxes than Sununu offered in his February proposal.
Sununu called for cutting the Business Enterprise Tax, but the House plan also would cut the Business Profits Tax.
"House Finance passed a budget that is based on conservative, realistic revenue estimates and contains many aspects that Republicans campaigned on and can be proud to vote for," Osborne said.
"This budget contains a treasure trove of tax cuts for NH businesses and taxpayers on a scale we haven't seen in recent history."
Deputy Speaker Smith said he was most pleased with the property tax relief feature in the bill, a $100 million cut in the statewide property tax that communities pay to support aid to education.
"This $100 million is for the people. I think at the local level officials will be hard-pressed to say, 'Hey, we really need your money so we're not going to pass this on in lower property taxes," Smith said.
"I've always said the easiest way to help the taxpayers is to find a way to collect less of their money, and this does just that."
Wallner said this "very small tax reduction" would be better spent by giving it in additional aid to school districts.