×

Capital Beat: A legislative session of wins, losses


Sunday, June 25, 2017

A giddy Chris Sununu emerged from a door of the governor’s office into the hallway, a football clasped in one hand. He hugged a lobbyist. “Kindergarten passed,” she said excitedly.

The scene marks a stark departure from Sununu’s more scripted predecessor. Known for his free-wheeling approach, Sununu has taken a different tack than Democrat Maggie Hassan, who usually got her ducks in a row behind the scenes before taking anything public.

A governor without prior legislative experience, Sununu bumped up against members of his own party early on. Republican House members delivered him a defeat on right-to-work. He once went three weeks without talking to the GOP House Speaker after the chamber failed to pass a budget for the first time in recent memory.

But Sununu ended the first year of the session on a high note, with passage of a spending plan once criticized by conservatives and approval of his signature issue: full-day kindergarten.

It remains to be seen whether the party unity will last into the next year, when policy bills take center stage and members often push controversial issues. Republicans already punted a number of hot button issues into 2018, including tightening food stamp eligibility and letting parents use taxpayer money to home school or send their kids to private institutions.

A number of bills, people and advocacy groups were winners and losers this year. Here’s a look:

Winners

All lawmakers: Passing a budget last week means legislators won’t have to return to Concord over the summer to hammer out a compromise deal.

Senate Republican leaders: While tension and division ruled the Republican-led House this year, especially after conservatives helped kill the chamber’s budget plan, Senate Republicans had no such public disputes. While some GOP Senators defected on a few issues, such as full-day kindergarten, there were never enough to sink the bills leadership wanted.

“There is no doubt the House faces challenges, they have different groups, I don’t allow it in the Senate,” Senate President Chuck Morse said last week to laughter, though he wasn’t really kidding.

Marijuana users: After years of failed attempts, the stars aligned this year for marijuana decriminalization. Sununu came into office pledging to sign a bill reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of pot, and the Senate finally found a bill it could stomach.

Fantasy sports: Seeking to cash in on the popularity of fantasy sports leagues, Republican representatives sought to regulate and tax the online operations in New Hampshire. But averse to the appearance of raising taxes, Republicans stripped out of the payment part and left in place only the regulations.

The ceiling in Representatives Hall: Despite Senate opposition, and claims that Sen. Lou D’Allesandro could do the work himself, House leaders got the nearly $700,000 they had wanted to repaint the ceiling in Representatives Hall.

Losers

Democrats: The party already started out the session at a disadvantage. Republicans in control of the House, Senate, corner office and Executive Council don’t have much incentive to work with the minority party. It was looking up when Sununu prioritized full-day kindergarten, a policy long pushed by Democrats. But ultimately – and in a rare instance – the party divided over the issue once keno was added into the equation. Now some are worried that come election time, the once solidly Democratic issue could be used against party members who opposed it.

Transparency: With Republicans in control of the State House, many deals were worked out behind closed doors and then presented publicly at the committee of conference meetings.

University System: After getting bad press for spending $17,570 on a dining hall table and using $1 million of a librarian’s donation to pay for a scoreboard, Republicans weren’t in a giving mood. While the Community College System got a funding boost, the University System got nothing extra. Instead, Sununu set up a $10 million student scholarship program that will be run out of his office.

Public health: Republicans may be thinking twice about opposing Democrats’ efforts to spend an extra $300,000 on STD testing and prevention. Public health officials announced last week that syphilis is making a resurgence in New Hampshire. The warnings comes on the heels of a gonorrhea outbreak in January.

Unresolved

Speaker Shawn Jasper: In an unprecedented move, the House failed to pass a budget for the first time in recent memory. While skeptical conservatives eventually came around to the plan, they heaped their praise for the deal on Senate leaders and Sununu and left Jasper’s name out. For a speaker whose grasp on the gavel has been under near constant question from members of his own party, the signs aren’t settling.

House Freedom Caucus: Threatening to kill the budget helped the group get some of what they wanted, such as the addition of anti-abortion language, tax cuts and work requirements for people on expanded Medicaid. But members couldn’t get their messaging together come voting day. Some continued to oppose the budget compromise, while others said it was good enough, fearing a failure would push State House leaders to work out a deal with Democrats. It remains to be seen how much sway the caucus will have going forward.

Business & Industry Association: Billed as the state’s chamber of commerce, the group typically carries a lot of sway in the State House, especially among business-friendly Republicans. But despite aggressive lobbying, the BIA didn’t budge the needle on right-to-work this year. The industry association is pushing Sununu to veto a renewable energy bill it says will raise electric rates, but the first-term Republican has been non-committal on what he will do.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)