By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The atmosphere in the New Hampshire State House has changed.
Thirty years ago, people had fun during the long grueling hours of work even in very difficult times.
Thirty years ago, the state was headlong into a severe recession brought on by cuts to military spending, a collapse in the tech sector driven by the personal computer revolution, and over-extended banks that invested in the housing market that then was flush with unsold properties with prices falling about as fast as state revenue.
House and Senate budget writers spent long days and nights meeting with state agency heads reviewing every line item for reductions to match revenues but still could not close what was eventually a $200 million gap.
The House Appropriations Committee worked in Room 100 in the State House for 12 to 14 hours a day for weeks to sift through a budget approved months earlier.
Cut to the Bone
Republicans and Democrats worked together to find solutions as then-chair Bill Kidder, a New London Republican, told reporters “we’ve cut through the muscle and are now down to bone. We’re hurting people.”
Times were dire and the mood was somber and lawmakers did little wrangling. House Appropriations member Teddy Nardi, a Manchester Democrat, had some small plastic trees in front of her during the discussions to remind everyone people are more important than trees.
In House Ways and Means, chair Donna Sytek, a Salem Republican who would later become the House’s first female speaker, prepared what looked like a restaurant menu of potential tax hikes to try to stem the tide as she worked to convince committee members of the need for more revenue and not to boost revenue estimates, one reason the budget was falling apart.
When House and Senate leadership settled on a budget plan, Rep. Arnie Arnesen, an Orford Democrat, went to the well and helped convince Republican and Democratic House members to vote down the revenue raising package, sending negotiators back to work to craft a more modest plan.
There were no harsh words or name calling or repeated calls for roll call votes. The people’s business needed to be done.
Today, state revenues may not be plentiful enough for everything lawmakers would like to do, but the last few biennia have produced surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The last revenue report for January shows a $16 million surplus for the fiscal year, according to the budget’s revenue plan.
That is good, but compared to last year’s returns through January, revenues are down $64 million, with business taxes tanking by $83 million, mostly due to the rate reductions that went into effect about Jan. 1. 2019.
But budget writers are not struggling to find ways to reduce spending by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Instead we have budget writers turning down $46 million in federal money for charter school expansion and start-ups.
The Democratic majority of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee has turned down the initial $10 million from the federal government three times saying the state cannot afford the long-term expansion while dedicating more money to public education to help property-poor communities with exploding property tax bills.
With the student population declining, additional charter schools will increase the property tax burden for districts losing students and the resulting state aid to charter schools, they claim.
But Republicans tout the money as providing alternatives to students who do not learn well in traditional school settings. They also note charter schools are much more financially efficient and can target the students who need help.
And there are the anti and pro-union sentiments adding to the partisan divide.
Under this scenario, Democrats are the more fiscally responsible party, and Republicans the champions of all students, not just the well-adjusted.
But so far the two sides have found no middle ground.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Gov. Chris Sununu both support the federal grant and educational choice and tried an end-run around by having respected Senate Republican Jeb Bradley introduce a bill allowing the state to accept the money.
But with Democrats in the majority in the Senate and House, the bill isn’t going anywhere and instead will become political theater for this fall’s general election.
Another example of the partisan divide is House Bill 1218, which is the latest attempt to expand net metering, which allows small alternative energy producers — like those with home solar panels — to sell excess energy to the utility to offset their bills for electricity used when the solar panels were not generating or not generating enough power to fulfill household needs.
Lawmakers have approved expanding the net metering limit from one to five megawatts several times in the last few years, but to date, including earlier this year, Sununu has successfully vetoed every bill claiming it raises the cost for those who did not generate their own power.
Raising the limit to five megawatts allows municipal, institutions like colleges, and larger businesses to participate in the program.
But to step back, net metering supports the expansion of alternative energy supplies, thus reducing greenhouse gases and the march to catastrophic climate change.
But until recently, the cost of alternative energy has been much more expensive than burning fossil fuels for electricity, although the recent advances particularly in solar panels makes generation much less costly than it was just few years ago.
Consequently, the issue highlights the Republican-Democratic divide on climate change, renewable energy and fossil fuels.
Earlier this year, Sununu backed three Republican-sponsored bills that he said would allow the expansion of net metering to the larger institutions without increasing costs to others.
So when Sununu vetoed Senate Bill 159, the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee added two of the Republican bills to HB 1218, which would expand the program and grandfathered existing generators of one megawatt and less at the current retail price credit, but allow the Public Utilities Commission to set the rate for the larger generators.
The committee did not add the third Republican bill because it would have the legislature set the rate and not the PUC.
The bill passed the House last week on a 215 to 125 vote with seven Republicans and one Libertarian joining Democrats for passage and all Republicans voting against the bill.
Thirty years ago, that was the kind of compromise that would draw real bipartisan support.
Today there is little compromise as the vote indicates, with both parties firmly defending their turf.
Thirty years ago, campaigning for office was separate from governing once you were elected.
Today, the campaign dominates with governing just another vehicle to showcase wedge issues and drive the base to the polls.
Truly governing, which is doing all the people’s business, is a lost art.
There is the old adage that politics is the art of the possible, but today politics is a partisan sledge-hammer to be used on your opponents. There is no art involved.
Governing is an afterthought.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.