Budget negotiations enter final crunch period in State House

Monitor staff
Published: 9/7/2019 9:38:52 PM

After months of talks, the race to get a budget deal for New Hampshire is entering the final stretch.

Top lawmakers in the House and Senate met with Gov. Chris Sununu twice this week – on Wednesday and Thursday – and they plan to meet again Monday, according to Senate Finance Chairman Lou D’Allesandro.

But time is running out. The three-month stop-gap funding mechanism known as the continuing resolution is nearing its end. That resolution, designed to keep state operations going long enough to buy time for a budget deal, will end Sept. 30.

Democratic negotiators, including D’Allesandro, Senate President Donna Soucy, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, and House Finance Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, now have a matter of days to find agreement with Gov. Chris Sununu on a range of thorny issues.

Or maybe weeks. Depending on how legislators choose to amend the rules and rearrange their schedules, the negotiating team could keep pushing off decision time to the end of the month if they chose.

Here are the options:

All 424 House and Senate members are next meeting at the State House on Sept. 18 and 19, respectively, to vote on whether to override a slew of gubernatorial vetoes.

Under traditional circumstances, getting a hypothetical compromise budget to those bodies in time for those sessions would require the parties to find agreement by Thursday, Sept. 12. That way, civil servants in the Legislative Budget Assistant office have time to record the final agreements and stitch them into a workable bill.

If they can’t get that in time, they could keep negotiating right up to the day before Veto Day, and submit the final budget as a late item.

That’s what happened in 2015, when then-Democratic-Gov. Maggie Hassan had vetoed a Republican budget containing tax reductions she opposed. The parties came to a compromise, rushed it off through the legislative lawyers, and passed it on to lawmakers the next day.

But suppose it’s Sept. 17th and they still haven’t managed to reconcile the numerous gaps in positions – on tax rates, on Medicaid provider payments, on spending levels overall. In that case, they still have options.

They could give up, and use the “Veto Day” sessions to extend the deadline by passing a second continuing resolution, buying more time but creating headaches – particularly for towns relying on grant funding. Or, they could roll the dice again, schedule an emergency session sometime before Sept. 30 and hope for a future agreement.

So maybe the stakes are high for Monday’s meeting – or maybe they’re not high at all. Either way, those in the negotiations have remained characteristically tight-lipped about the prospects of success.

“We’re working on it,” said Wallner on Thursday. “But I can’t say anything yet.”

D’Allesandro was equally circumspect.

“We’ll find out on Monday,” he told reporters Thursday.

Will Monday be a big day?

“Monday’s always a big day!” he replied. “It’s the first day of the week!”

A joint statement from the House Speaker and Senate President on Friday shed even less light: “Negotiations continue to be productive and we are getting closer to a budget deal,” the two said.

And here was Sununu’s office after the meeting Wednesday: “Talks continued to be productive, but more work remains to be done in the coming days.”

Amid Cuban Missile Crisis-levels of caution, anything could be talked about in the governor’s small quarters, but no one would know it. And, of course, negotiators hope to keep it that way: The less is publicly stated throughout this process, the more candid the proposals can be, they say.

But so far, what has been released publicly has demonstrated only modest concessions. Back in June, a week and a half before vetoing the budget, Sununu told reporters that he would consider giving in on one component of the planned business tax cuts: He would consider freezing the business profits tax at 7.7% – its current level – and canceling the planned 2021 decrease to 7.5%.

In August, Democrats, who want to set and keep the rate at 7.9%, proposed issuing a tax credit to businesses who have already paid at 7.7% this year – a proposal leaked to the press by a lawmaker.

Later that month, Sununu issued a letter to school administrators and towns outlining a minor give on education funding: $25 million into a fiscal capacity disparity aid formula favored by Democrats, compared to their $50 million. Both proposals are a step above zero.

None of these concessions appear to be the pièce de résistance toward agreement. And in most of the concessions so far, the side leaking the proposal was hoping for political gain – to the chagrin of the other side.

Now that parties are being more tightlipped, the public is more in the dark than ever. But that could be the surest sign yet of a compromise.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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