By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — All good things must come to an end, but the budget committee of conference on House Bill 2 pushed the limits Thursday.
The committee of conference faced a 4 p.m. deadline to finish its work with only one issue outstanding, a voluntary family and medical paid leave plan that Gov. Chris Sununu proposed but the House opposed until late in the day when its members agreed to include it in the budget.
Scheduled to meet at 10 a.m., the committee continued working to reach a resolution and did not meet until after 2 p.m.
The House did not want the paid leave program in its budget calling it — as Sununu called the Democrats’ plans the last two years — a backdoor attempt to institute an income tax.
But the Senate held its ground to maintain it in the budget.
There was little discussion of the leave program in public among the House and Senate conferees over the four days of conference committee meetings.
But the voluntary program would begin with state employees and then other public and private organizations and businesses would be able to join the program.
The leave plan would provide a portion of a person’s salary during the period, while an assessment would be made on a worker’s salary to pay for the program or the employer could pay the premium.
The proponents of the family and medical leave program passed by the last legislature say they believe the program has to be mandatory to be financially viable.
In the final minutes of the conference committee, the members agreed to change provisions limiting the governor’s authority during a state of emergency they approved the day before.
The House proposed the governor be required to call the legislature back into a joint session 90 days after the declaration and every 90 days thereafter to vote to affirm or terminate the state of emergency.
But the Senate did not go along and instead proposed the joint session would have to have each body vote to affirm the end of a state of emergency.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said, “What we both are trying to accomplish is if there is a state of emergency, within 90 days the governor would have to come before a joint session under Part 50, and address both chambers.”
That would provide transparency and accountability of the emergency order and then the legislature would vote whether to terminate it, he said.
Under constitutional checks and balances, Bradley said, one body cannot override the governor all by itself, it has to be both the Senate and the House.
It has to be an affirmative vote of both bodies to terminate the emergency order, Bradley said.
The House eventually agreed.
The change is intended to placate the House Freedom Caucus and others who believe there should be legislative approval of any continuation of a state of emergency after the governor’s first declaration,
That provision also requires Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approval to accept or expend any federal or other gifts or grants over $100,000, but contains an exemption for an immediate threat to the health and safety of residents.
The governor could bypass the fiscal committee if it fails to act within five days of his request.
The governor would be required to present information to the Executive Council on all monies accepted and spent within 30 days.
During the pandemic, Sununu declared a state of emergency in March 2020 that ended last Friday, and declared he did not need fiscal committee approval to accept or expend funds from the federal government under a law giving governors broad authority during a state of emergency. The law was passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
Democrats, who controlled the legislature and executive council at the time, sued, but lost in a superior court decision.
Lawmakers from both parties sought to clarify a governor’s authority during a state of emergency, all attempting to give legislators more involvement.
After the vote on the committee of conference report, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem said, the budget “is balanced, lives within our means, helps working families, supports Main Street businesses, protects taxpayers, cares for our most vulnerable, improves education, funds mental health and substance abuse programs, reduces regulatory burdens and keeps New Hampshire streets and homes safe.”
But Democrats said the budget will harm the state for years to come while downshifting costs to local property taxpayers.
“The most concerning part of this budget is the unprecedented hijacking of the process to force right-wing ideology on the people of New Hampshire,” said Rep. MaryJane Wallner, D-Concord, who was House Finance Committee chair for the 2019-2020 legislature. “A new requirement for state-run inspections of family planning centers is an inappropriate and unnecessary taxpayer expense.”
She also noted a provision restricting how schools and businesses discuss racism remains in the budget despite widespread opposition.
Over the course of the last four days, the House and Senate conferees on HB 2 agreed to close the Sununu Youth Services Center by March 1, 2023 and opening a smaller youth detention center, to restore 20 liquor enforcement officers removed by the House, to create a controversial “divisive concept” provision on race and sexual identification the Senate proposed, and to require health care providers offering abortion services to segregate those services if they commingle state money so it supports abortions.
The HB 2 conference committee also included an abortion ban after 24 weeks of pregnancy with few exceptions. The language also requires women to have an ultrasound prior to an abortion, at any stage in pregnancy.
And the two sides agreed to include what has been described as the most expansive school voucher program in the country. The program would have state adequacy aid pay private and religious school tuition, or for home schooling or alternative education programs.
And there will be no merger of the state’s two higher education systems in the budget
Sununu proposed merging the University System of New Hampshire with the Community College System of New Hampshire in order to make a “seamless system” for students, and to address financial and enrollment challenges both systems face.
The House slowed down the merger in its budget by creating a study commission rather than a merged board of trustees as the governor had proposed by July 1, and keeps the two systems’ finances separate for the next biennium.
The Senate removed any reference to the merger in its budget and the House agreed to that with Morse saying the proper place for the issue is proposed legislation next year.
Under the budget agreement, the two systems remain separate for the biennium and state support is level funded with what each received this fiscal year.
The budget adopted by the two conference committees spends $13.5 billion in total funds and $5.4 in state general funds.
Conferees agreed on House Bill 1 last week.
The agreed-to-budget increases the rooms and meals tax money going to cities and towns as revenue sharing by about $40 million, but reduces the state’s obligation from 4 to 3 percent of that revenue stream. The revenue sharing program had been suspended during the great recession.
However, the budget provides about $90 million less state education aid to school districts than the last biennium’s, but does include $100 million to replace revenue raised by the statewide education property tax.
The budget also includes $50 million for clean water grants both the House and Gov. Chris Sununu left out of their budget plans and includes money for a new state employee contract.
The agreed-to-budget injects $50 million of general fund money into the Highway Fund to stabilize Department of Transportation finances, earmarks $25 million for affordable housing, and provides $10 million to jilted investors of Financial Resource Mortgage, which was found guilty of bilking them of about $20 million.
The budget also adds child protection workers but caps Health and Human Services employees at 3,000.
And the budget includes $30 million for a new, 24-bed secure psychiatric hospital on New Hampshire Hospital grounds.
Tax cuts in the budget will reduce state revenues by more than $100 million over the biennium.
The budget cuts rates for business, and rooms and meals taxes, and also cuts the rate of the interest and dividends tax in the second year of the biennium and begins phasing it out.
Those reductions lower revenues an estimated $65.5 million over the biennium.
The budget also accounts for revenue loss from Senate Bill 3, which would exempt Payroll Protection Program forgiven loans, or grants, from business profits tax liability, reducing revenues by an estimated $56 million during the biennium and $99 million over the next four years.
The House and Senate meet June 24 to vote on the committee of conference reports.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.