By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
Government in this country and state has a fundamental principle of checks and balances so that competing interests are key to any decision.
The old adage for this is no one gets everything he or she wants, but everyone gets some of what they need (adding a little Rolling Stones).
The checks and balances are often thought to be among branches of government such as the executive versus the legislative branches or the legislative versus the judicial branch such as the Claremont education lawsuit and the court’s decision.
But within the legislative branch there are also checks and balances between the House and Senate, and that is usually most obvious during the committee of conference on the two-year operating budget, the most important action the General Court will take in any term.
But not this one.
Witnessing Thursday’s House session when by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities, the House concurred — approved — the Senate’s version of the biennial budget was informative.
The two-bill package had little debate, there was no debate over House Bill 1, which is the budget numbers, and a short debate on House Bill 2, which contains the changes in law and policies needed to correspond to the numbers and sometimes, like two year ago, a little more like controversial bills establishing the Education Freedom Account program, a 24-week abortion ban, and a reworked divisive concept prohibition in public schools.
The budget process begins well before the Legislature hears the Governor’s budget address in February. The governor’s office holds hearings the summer before on what state agencies propose often in three parts: within the governor’s guidelines, what’s needed, and what the agency would really like.
The governor whittles the agency requests down to what his budget people think is almost doable with slightly bloated revenue estimates and presents his plan to the legislature in February.
The last few years the state has had the luxury of budget surpluses driven largely by revenue surpluses from the massive amounts of federal money to combat the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal money spurred businesses large and small to greater profitability and the state’s biggest revenue producer, businesses taxes, were the beneficiary of that spending.
So when Gov. Chris Sununu presented his budget, he included many “wish list” items including money for a new men’s prison, money for a state employee pay raise, increases in Medicaid provider reimbursement rates, and a new education funding system with more money as the state faces three lawsuits: two over education funding and one challenging using Education Trust Fund money to pay for freedom accounts.
When the House began work on the budget, the finance committee made changes, including a new education funding formula with additional money, greater increases in Medicaid provider rates, and a $300 million package over 10 years to restore retirement benefits to Group 2 members, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders.
The House also included a provision to automatically register students for the school free and reduced lunch program when families qualify for Temporary Aid to Needy Families services.
The House passed the numbers part of its budget plan on a voice vote, and then argued all day over amendments before a bipartisan vote on a negotiated agreement between House Majority Leader Jason Osborne and Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm that included some things Democrats wanted and some things Republicans could not live without.
The House plan spent about $15.9 billion, which was about $500 million more than the governor’s plan.
When the Senate went to work on the budget, it did what the Senate almost always does, raise revenue estimates.
With the new estimates and using money from the current year’s anticipated surplus, the Senate crafted a plan spending $15.2 billion over the two years but looks lower than it actually is because of the money from the surplus, which will be credited to this year’s final accounting.
The Senate did remove all of the retirement spending and instead wants to appoint a commission to study additional benefits in light of the long-term stability of the system which has a considerable unfunded liability.
It also removed the automatic registration for kids to the free and reduced lunch program as Senate budget writers worried about the impact on the state’s education funding formula as the largest differential aid category is the number of students on free and reduced lunches in a school district.
The Senate also reworked the education formula to be somewhere in between what the governor proposed and the House’s plan.
The governor’s plan benefits large and growing schools, while the House’s has greater aid for communities with low property values and higher number of students in poverty.
Medicaid expansion reauthorization was also an issue as the House budget writers wanted only a two-year extension, while the Senate had permanently reauthorized the program that serves between 65,000 and 80,000 Granite Staters.
A compromise was reached at seven years.
So when the House was done with the budget bills Thursday, House Speaker Sherman Packard told the members “I believe we have kind of made history.”
The bipartisan and bicameral agreement on the budget is historic, but it is not the first time the House has concurred with the Senate’s budget proposal.
In 1999, the House rejected the budget proposed by its Finance Committee due to what many members considered Draconian cuts, particularly to health and human services programs.
So when the Senate’s budget plan came before the House, a majority of representatives voted to concur with the proposal instead of having a committee of conference.
Long-time Senator and then Senate President Clesson “Junie” Blaisdell of Keene stood outside the door to the House chamber in the hallway that connects the two chambers, and just shook his head and kept saying “I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen this in all my time here.”
The Senate was controlled by Democrats in 1999 for the first time since 1912 and the House was controlled by Republicans, so it was a divided legislature.
It is almost a similar situation this session with the House’s Republican majority only three or four votes, so on some days Democrats outnumber Republicans, particularly on key legislation such as the parental rights bill.
The House has a sizable number of libertarians/free staters, enough of whom are inclined not to vote for any state budget so the GOP leadership lacks the votes needed to pass a budget.
Packard, like many before him, had a choice, turn to the Democrats for support or slash and burn the budget enough for the freedom caucuses to support it.
With such a close partisan divide, that is a very risky proposition and he chose to reach out to Democrats to see if a compromise could be reached.
It was in the House.
The Senate does not have the same problems with numbers as the House with a 14-10 partisan split with a Republican majority.
But whatever the Senate does on the budget, it has to go back to the House due to the changes, and again there is the problem again of finding the votes to pass the budget.
Packard and Senate President Jeb Bradley are two lawmakers who have been in Concord long enough to know things were not always as divided and partisan as they are now.
Bradley helped shepherd the electric industry deregulation through a skeptical legislature 20 years ago, his name was on a number of Medicaid expansion reauthorization bills over the years, and he is known as someone who wants to get to “Yes” on the significant issues facing the state.
Packard was the longtime chair of the House Transportation Committee where he brought both sides to the table to find something acceptable.
Frankly the state has had enough money for the last two budget cycles to address many of the things this budget does such as child care, homelessness, housing and more money for state aid to public education so in many ways money was not the limiting factor this session.
And Sununu was thinking about running for president when the budget process began, and having a smooth process would make him look like a governor who gets things done.
He is no longer running for president but his flirting with the idea also probably helped everyone find common ground.
Now the lawmakers can go home and tout what they have done for their constituents.
And isn’t this the way governing really should work?
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.