Distant Dome: NH’s Budget Fiasco

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InDepthNH.org and Manchester Ink Link co-publish Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome

By Garry Rayno,
Distant Dome

Last week the House failed to pass a budget for the first time in half a century, maybe longer.

Legislative leaders were quick to say the Senate will begin work on its version of the two-year $12.2 billion operating budget proposed by first-term GOP Gov. Chris Sununu while downplaying the failure in the House.

Sen. President Chuck Morse

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, designated two House bills that had already passed to use as the new budget package.

House Bill 144, which changes the budget adoption process for Rockingham County, but does not appropriate any money, will replace House Bill 1, the line-item operating budget, and House Bill 517, which reorganizes the Department of Administrative Services, again with no appropriation, will replace House Bill 2, or the trailer bill that makes changes in laws and policies needed to coincide with HB 1.

The state constitution says all money bills have to originate in the House. You could argue that neither HB 144 nor HB 517 are money bills because they do not contain any appropriations, although they do deal with aspects of budgets.

Garry Rayno

The procedure may have been used before, but is that enough to stop a court challenge given the ill will the budget battle generated among Republicans?

There are other issues as well.

The Senate will act next week to change its rules governing non-germane amendments to bills.

The change would make an exception to the prohibition against non-germane amendments “if the House does not pass a budget.” The change would allow “an amendment to a house bill, proposed by the Committee on Finance, establishing a general appropriations (budget) bill or trailer bill.”

The House is going to face a similar non-germane amendment dilemma after the Senate approves its version of the two-year operating budget later this spring.

Several House rules may have to be changed before a final vote on the new two-year operating budget package.

The rules governing non-germane amendments in bills and conference committee reports are likely to need revisions.

Other rules could also become problematic including one that forbids the House to accept any bill that increases taxes or fees if the House has not first approved it.

The other problem with needing to change the rules is the same 65 to 75 GOP representatives that held up the House Finance Committee budget plan could also hold the rule changes hostage.

The House will be in a tough enough position trying to negotiate with the Senate over the budget senators ultimately approve. What does the House base its position on, a budget plan the majority of the House voted against?

The only leverage the House has is that all members of the budget conference committee have to agree to the final plan. 

Either way, the picture is not pretty for the House. The joys of one-party rule.

Retribution

The fissure in the Republican House caucus became a little larger this week after

House Speaker Shawn Jasper

House Speaker Shawn Jasper and his chief of staff Terry Pfaff informed the House Republican Alliance they could no longer be able to use the State House complex for meetings and had to distribute the group’s session-day “pink sheets” outside of Representatives Hall and the anteroom like other lobbying organizations. Currently the organization distributes the sheets telling members how to vote inside the chambers.

The long-running wrangle over the alliance’s bylaws finally came to a head after a meeting between the alliance’s co-chair Rep. James Spillane of  Deerfield and Pfaff. Pfaff noted the organization has yet to produce bylaws or discuss them and lacks transparency.

Without bylaws Pfaff writes in a letter to Spillane, the alliance is a lobbying or advocacy group.

“I do want to stress this subject is not new. Our concerns and the lack of bylaws and transparency within your organization had also been discussed with the previous HRA chairs,” Pfaff writes.

Kicking the organization out of the State House complex will certainly accelerate the brush fire that has been smoldering between the HRA and the House GOP leadership.

Rep. James Spillane

Some viewed the decision as retribution for the budget vote the week before when 66 Republican representatives voted against the bill, almost all members of the HRA.

The three co-chairs of the HRA released a statement before the budget vote saying more work needs to be done to cut spending in the proposed budget plan.

The organization represents the more conservative element of the Republican caucus and several former and current chairs have used it as a launching pad to run for speaker including former speaker Bill O’Brien and more recently Laurie Sanborn.

The group did little to cooperate with Jasper after he took on O’Brien in 2015 to become House Speaker.

Rep. Laurie Sanborn

The situation highlights the growing rift within the Republican caucus both in the legislature and in Washington as the most conservative members keep pulling the party to the right.

Public Education

One of the prime targets for the Republican controlled Legislature with one of its own sitting in the governor’s office is public education.

In the past, Democratic governor’s have been able to dissuade lawmakers or successfully veto bills that promoted school choice at the expense of public education, but not now.

This year there are several bills that would significantly alter the landscape for elementary and secondary education in New Hampshire.

House Bill 386 would expand the business tax credit program that allows businesses to “donate” a portion of their tax liability to a scholarship program for needy students to attend non-public schools.

The bill allows tax dollars to fund charter, private and home-school programs. A superior court decision prohibited the program from offering scholarships for religious schools, but the state Supreme Court overturned the decision without ruling on the constitutionality of using public tax dollars for religious schools.

Approved several years ago, the business tax credit program was slow to take off, but last year awarded about $250,000 in scholarships. The program cap is about $5 million.

But more importantly, another provision removes the current prohibition against a student attending a school other then the one assigned by a local school board.

Two years ago, then Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed a bill that would have allowed a school district without its own high or middle, or elementary school to use tax dollars to pay tuition for a private school. Known as the Croydon bill, there are two nearly identical bills in the House and Senate that would allow the practice.

The Senate bill allows school districts to send their students to religious schools, but the House version does not.

And another bill, Senate Bill 193 would establish student savings accounts to be used for private, charter or home schools. The money would come from adequate education grants to school districts and could total 90 percent of the per-pupil grant of around $3,600.

That bill has passed the Senate and is now in the House.

Although none of the bills would divert a great deal of money from traditional public schools, they continue a trend while expanding opportunities for students and parents to explore other options.

Sununu advocated for school choice during his campaign for the corner office, but also said he does not want to “blow up public education.” 

Most of the “school choice” bills are expected to become law this year, and the effects on public education will be evident in the years to come.

Garry Rayno can be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome runs exclusively on Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org, where Rayno will explore a broader perspective on State House – and state – happenings. Over his three-decade career Rayno has closely covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat, and his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. He is former editor of The Hillsboro Messenger and Assistant Editor of The Argus-Champion. Rayno graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English Literature and lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.