State budget passes, dicey trailer bill clears hurdle too

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Jun. 24—BEDFORD — The high drama battle over a controversial budget trailer bill became a House conservative bloc party Thursday as rank-and-file members swallowed hard and embraced a final compromise, with some pledging to revisit the details next year.

The 198-181 vote in the House was a breakthrough for House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, who had spent days sweating over whether its GOP members would embrace what Gov. Chris Sununu wanted — a voluntary paid family leave program and changes for dealing with future states of emergency.

The GOP-led state Senate had never been in doubt as its 14 Republican members voted for the trailer bill (HB 2) and the main budget bill (HB 1), ith all 10 Senate Democrats opposed.

Packard had more breathing room with the budget bill itself, which the House passed, 208-172.

Sununu got involved in the trenches, working to close the deal. He praised the GOP majority in the Legislature, which corresponded with the governor's 2-1 re-election victory in November.

"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.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, said the outcome was very much in doubt until the final days.

Osborne saluted colleagues who embraced what the two bills will provide — a raft of tax cuts, reductions in spending, the first ban on later-term abortions, education vouchers and a reorganization of state government's energy regulatory structure.

The plan will reduce spending by $172 million over the next two years and grows the state's Rainy Day Fund to a record $158.6 million.

"When you have the smallest Republican majority perhaps in history, you have to get 95% buy-in to everything you are doing," Osborne said during an interview.

'You take your wins'

In face-to-face meetings with stragglers, Osborne said he got his conservative colleagues to focus on what they got, not what they didn't.

"Someone said to me last night, 'Well I guess I should take it if I get 80 percent of what I wanted.' I said, 'You never get 100 percent,' that process never ends, so you take your wins when you get them and there are ton of victories in this one," Osborne said.

Only nine House Republicans opposed the trailer bill, and no House Democrat backed it.

Sununu improved the odds of breaking through on the trailer bill.

In the final days of horse trading, Sununu wrote a letter to Osborne in which he stated that he was willing to "strengthen the process" on the emergency powers language in future legislation if the House Freedom Caucus dropped its opposition to the trailer bill.

The House GOP holdouts had wanted a legislative vote to "affirm" keeping a state of emergency. What they got was a vote, after 90 days, on whether to terminate it.

Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, and a leader in the conservative emergency powers movement, said Sununu's letter sealed it for him.

"The emergency piece was always something that was a must-have; the iron was hot to make this change and this trailer bill doesn't get it right," Prout said.

"We now have the framework of making it better in the future and that was absolutely critical to making this happen."

State Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, had goaded the House GOP, noting the trailer bill doesn't require any legislative involvement in any future pandemic or disaster for 90 days.

"Will the Legislature be the voice of the people or just a nameplate on the State House?" Leishman said.

Family leave a hard sell

For five years, Sununu has campaigned to make New Hampshire the first state in the country to adopt a voluntary family leave program that would cover all state workers and any company that wishes to offer the benefit.

Some political observers viewed it as a priority for Sununu as he considers whether to take on U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., in 2022 in what would be one of the nation's most-watched Senate races.

Osborne said "only about 10" House Republicans strongly supported the idea.

Eight-term Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said he was prepared to oppose the trailer bill until he was told by GOP leaders the program's fine print could be altered in 2022.

"It's a new entitlement that isn't sustainable in the future," said Baldasaro, a key adviser on veterans to former President Donald Trump.

"Our leadership agreed we could look at going back under the hood on this program next year. With everything else this budget does that is positive, their word on that was good enough for me."

Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester, who ran the state Senate that produced the state budget ending June 30, issued a scathing statement.

"House and Senate Republicans have turned their backs on their constituents and passed a budget that represents everything that is wrong with politics in this country today. This is extremism at its worst," Soucy said.

"This budget tramples on our state and national constitutions by infringing on Granite Staters' right to free speech, it ends New Hampshire's unbroken tradition of protecting women's bodily autonomy, and it turns my home state into a place I no longer recognize."

Her replacement, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the final product keeps all the promises the GOP candidates made to voters who put them in charge.

"In the end, budgets are so much more than just numbers. They're about taking care of people's needs in an honest, responsible way," Morse said.

"We built this budget on Republican principles and reliable revenues, and in the process, we also made certain we took care of the people of New Hampshire by making sure their concerns are our highest priority."

House Democratic leaders had attacked the plan for reducing aid to education, not filling the gaps in federal grants for family planning and failing to finance water pollution cleanup grants.

"It is not the New Hampshire way for the Legislature to cause suffering for citizens by increasing their property tax burden," said Rep. Kate Murray, D-New Castle.

Some of the most divisive debate was over family planning, as House Democrats failed to get $1.2 million in additional money to make up for a Trump administration rule that will not be fully undone by the Biden White House for nearly another year.

Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, said nearly 60 towns, including the property-poorest, will get less aid to education in each of the next two years than they got in the current budget cycle.

"The one thing this budget will assuredly do is raise property taxes," said Heath, a former state education agency executive.

House Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, said the spending increase in the current budget the Democrat-led Legislature passed in 2019 was unsustainable.

"This budget is smaller than the present budget, but still puts funding where it is needed," Weyler said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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