House budget panel recommends spending plans

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·4 min read
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Mar. 29—CONCORD — House budget writers made many changes to Gov. Chris Sununu's two-year spending plan on Monday in hopes of winning over enough Republican votes to pass it next week.

House Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, said after consulting with House Republican leaders, he urged the group to endorse spending cuts and to adopt socially conservative policies to get enough conservatives on board for the $13 billion package (HB 1).

The budget will come to the full House for a vote when it meets April 7-9 at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford.

The finance committee endorsed its proposed budget along partisan lines, with all GOP members in support of the outcome and Democrats opposed to it.

The group will again meet Wednesday to formally adopt the changes.

Some of the changes seek to curb the powers that Republican Sununu and future governors would have in dealing with emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

A minority of Republican House members have advanced more than 15 bills in reaction to Sununu's emergency orders imposing economic restrictions because of COVID-19.

The committee endorsed adding to the House budget trailer bill (HB 2) a separate bill (HB 63) that would refund to businesses the $10,000 they have paid for violating pandemic restrictions. The same bill also permits individuals to ask a judge to annul any convictions arising from COVID-19 enforcement.

Another recommended change would require a governor to ask for permission from the Legislature to extend an emergency declaration after 21 days. Extension would require a majority vote in the House and Senate.

Under current law, the governor had the authority to declare an emergency due to COVID-19 and to individually renew it through executive order every three weeks.

The plan also adopts a controversial House bill (HB 544) that would prevent any private or public contractors from teaching "divisive concepts" such as critical race theory or that the state or the nation is fundamentally racist or sexist.

State Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, called that section "very troubling."

"I certainly support the governor in his announcement that he would veto any legislation such as that," Leishman said. "I am hopeful this doesn't come out in the final package."

Other changes

Higher education: The House budget panel rejected Sununu's plan to begin the consolidation of the four- and two-year college system into one higher education unit.

Sununu wanted to eliminate both boards of trustees and replace it with one that would spearhead the merger.

Instead, the finance committee is recommending creating an 11-person commission to further study the issue.

Family Leave: The panel also stripped from the bill Sununu's plan to give business owners a tax credit incentive to offer a voluntary family medical leave benefit.

HHS cuts: To reduce the bottom line, the budget would eliminate 216 vacant jobs in the Department of Health and Human Services, saving $22.6 million in spending. Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said a statewide work force shortage makes it difficult to fill vacant positions.

The budget also would require HHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette to cut an additional $50 million in expenses over the next two years.

Democrats were critical of that move.

"The back of the budget cut really makes it clear we have not done the work we should have done," said Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover.

School grants: Budget writers reduced an infrastructure grant program for local school districts from $30 million down to $1 million a year. Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said the most recent federal COVID-19 relief plan gives New Hampshire schools $350 million in grants, and that erases the need for a state-run grant initiative.

Planned Parenthood: Edwards also defended a cut in state grants for family planning to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

"I don't think anybody needs to worry about the financial wherewithal of Planned Parenthood," Edwards said.

Federal monies approved by the Biden administration will replace that cut, Andrews said. The Trump administration had reduced federal support for these programs.

Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, said the change in federal policy will take nearly nine months to come to fruition, which is why Planned Parenthood needs more in this budget.

Historical racing (HB 626): This change would expand legalized gambling to permit patrons to make bets on an archive of horse races that had already occurred. The New Hampshire Lottery would manage this new program that supporters maintain could raise up to $10 million a year.

Sununu Youth Center: This would close the Manchester facility that houses juveniles who are ordered to be incarcerated until they reach the age of adulthood. Advocates maintain the building is much larger than is needed for the small number of juveniles sent there, and should be replaced.

Property tax relief: The budget would take $100 million in budget surplus money and use it to lower the statewide property tax that all cities and towns have to pay to support state aid to education. Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Conway, said this should allow communities to reduce their local property taxes by the same amount.

Psychiatric hospital: Sununu proposed to build a new 60-bed hospital to place inmates with mental illness residing in the state prison system; this budget eliminates that plan.

klandrigan@unionleader.com