New Hampshire passes budget, this time with governor’s OK

  • Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, speaks to reporters in Concord, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, after lawmakers passed a two-year state budget. Joining Soucy were House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, left, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

  • Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, center, congratulates Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff and Democratic Senate President Donna Soucy in Concord, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, after lawmakers passed a two-year state budget. Sununu had vetoed an earlier version of the budget, but a compromise was reached earlier this week. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

  • Senate Democratic Finance Chairman Lou D’Allesandro slaps Gov. Chris Sununu on the back moments after the Legislature passes a bipartisan compromise budget. ETHAN DeWITT / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/25/2019 5:12:22 PM

A compromise state budget cobbled together by top lawmakers sailed through the House and Senate Wednesday, earning near-unanimous support and ending a long summer of uncertainty.

In a series of votes Wednesday, state representatives and senators overwhelmingly endorsed two spending bills – House Bill 3 and 4, which Gov. Chris Sununu vowed to sign as soon as they reach his desk. 

“This is a big win for New Hampshire families as we have held the line on taxes, returned cash to cities and towns, and provided historic investments into our education system,” Sununu said.

Senate President Donna Soucy called the $13 billion budget “a statement of our values” and said that the agreement “makes clear that New Hampshire values the people of our state.”

The bills, the result of weeks of negotiations between Gov. Chris Sununu and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, emerged three months after Sununu vetoed the first budget Democrats had passed in June. The agreement was reached just before a three-month temporary spending agreement, arranged in June, was set to run out. 

Within the two bills were a series of compromises. Sununu had vetoed the first budget – passed by the Democratically controlled Legislature – over concerns that it rolled back a set of planned cuts to state business taxes, and that it contained too many long-term spending obligations.

The compromise budget keeps the business profits tax rate at 7.7% – higher than what Sununu had wanted but lower than Democrats’ preferred option. And it includes a series of triggers that might cause that tax to increase or decrease in 2021 if revenue exceeds or underperforms expectations.

The agreement also preserves a range of Democratic spending priorities, but includes a number of cuts in other areas to bring down total spending from the Democrats’ first budget. It restores stabilization grants and delivers new money to struggling schools; allows for $40 million in town revenue sharing; increases state funding for full-day Kindergarten; helps to freeze state university tuition levels; and raises Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers. 

But it also makes a $25 million “back of the budget” reduction to the Department of Health and Human Services from what Democrats had suggested – leaving Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers to balance out the spending reductions himself. It slashes funding for the construction of the state’s Secure Psychiatric Unit by more than half – necessitating a future Legislature to spend the rest. And it cuts out Democratic priorities like a $1 million “Sunny Day fund,” paid family medical leave, and transfers to the state’s rainy day fund.

Still, for lawmakers, the compromise was welcome relief from an uncertain summer of pitched rhetoric from both parties – and a looming deadline for towns, which begin receiving property tax rates Oct. 1. And on Wednesday, that calculus translated into votes.

House Bill 3, the appropriations bill that sets revenue and spending levels for departments, passed the House 327-29 and the Senate unanimously. House Bill 4, the 182-page “trailer bill” that contains a raft of policy changes that might impact the budget, got a 316-40 House vote and a 23-1 vote in the Senate. 

The budget still had detractors from some Republicans. Fiscal conservatives in the House took to the floor to slam the late notice for the bill, which was released at 5 p.m. Tuesday. And some singled out specific provisions. 

“I’m voting no on this,” said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, citing a pledge he had made to the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity about not increasing taxes. 

Rep. Max Abramson, a Seabrook Libertarian, took issue with the additional spending levels in the budget – fueled by high revenues over the last two years. Instead, he argued in favor of extending the temporary spending measure put in place over the summer, which gave agencies flat funding.

"We're much better off ... remaining in the continuing resolution because it saves taxpayers money in the long run,” Abramson said.

But Burt and others also pointed to funding for Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health facilities as a point of contention. The budget allocates $3.2 million in conditional funding to Title X providers over two years after a Trump administration rule change led many abortion-providing facilities to lose federal funding. 

"I’m against abortions,” Burt said. “God’s against abortion. ...We can’t go down this path.”

The budget agreement includes a clause specifically exempting state money from funding abortions. But Burt argued that any money to Planned Parenthood indirectly supports the practice.

Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican and the lone vote against House Bill 4 in the Senate, also cited funding to family planning centers.

"Speaking for those who are unable to speak for themselves, no,” he said during the roll call vote.

Still, Democrats and Republicans largely rallied around the agreement Wednesday. A flurry of calls meetings Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning had helped bring many on board.

But for one senator, there were personal reasons to be glad. 

“I will join my wife in Florida tomorrow, thanks to the leadership of getting this done,” said Senate Republican Minority Leader Chuck Morse. 

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