February 21, 2024 5:32 pm
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House Passes a State Budget, to the Surprise of Many

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

For weeks, many doubted the House would pass a budget at all.

But a narrowly divided chamber surprised the state on Thursday by passing a biennial state budget on a bipartisan voice vote. And a last-minute compromise reached between Republican and Democratic leadership the day before helped make it happen. 

“That was not the result I would have expected a week ago,” Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, was heard saying as representatives poured out of the House chamber to head to lunch.

Over a three-hour process packed with floor amendments, representatives quibbled around the edges and made some changes. What emerged, however, was a bipartisan agreement that raises Medicaid rate increases above what Gov. Chris Sununu asked for, includes an increase in targeted aid to public schools, adds new curbs on gubernatorial emergency powers, removes a proposed expansion to the “education freedom account” program, expands eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches in schools, and keeps proposed raises for state employees. 

It was the first time in recent history that the House passed a budget by voice vote –  and not a contentious roll call vote – according to online records dating back to 1989.

Still, getting to that conclusion required a lot of compromises – particularly from Republicans. While Republicans technically control the chamber, 201-196, the unusually small margin forced House leadership to the negotiating table, and Democrats extracted a number of concessions.

“There are many parts of this budget I do not support, but there are many parts of this budget that I do support and are in the best interest of the state of New Hampshire,” said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, in a statement after the vote. 

In the end, all 192 Democrats present voted for the compromise amendment. Only 68 percent of Republicans present did the same. 

“I’m pleased to stand before you in support of this bipartisan floor amendment, which I co-sponsored with my good friend – no, my great friend – from Auburn,” said House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, speaking of Osborne. 

With the House having signed off on its amended versions of House Bills 1 and 2, the budget will head to the Senate next for a second round of changes and vetting. 

A last-minute compromise

The amendment that helped bring Democrats on board was the result of a week’s worth of negotiations involving House Speaker Sherman Packard, Osborne, and Wilhelm. 

Democrats had indicated they were not happy with the proposed budget recommended by the House Finance Committee last week; just one Democrat on the House Finance Committee had supported it during a vote. And Republican leadership was pressed into a tough position: Some of their conservative members had vowed to not support the budget without spending cuts, but appeasing that wing would lose Democratic votes.

Packard and Osborne chose to turn to the Democrats to add as many provisions as necessary to win over the party’s support. Just after 4 p.m. Wednesday, the two sides emerged with the compromise amendment.

The compromise struck out an effort by Sununu and Republicans to increase the eligibility cap for education freedom accounts from families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level to families making up to 350 percent. It restored a $30 million transfer to the state’s affordable housing fund proposed by the governor after House Republicans had proposed cutting the number to $15 million. 

It added new limits to the governor’s ability to call a state of emergency, a concession to a longstanding demand of House Republicans since COVID-19. Currently, the governor can renew a state of emergency every 21 days; the House and Senate have a chance every 90 days to hold a vote on whether to end the emergency. But the House budget amendment would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency for just four 21-day periods total; any continuation after that would need to be authorized by the Legislature. 

Once they reached the agreement, party leaders pitched it to members Thursday morning ahead of the vote. Republican leadership argued it was necessary for the chamber to pass a budget – even one that included some Democratic demands – in order to better stake out positions against the Senate when the two chambers meet for Committee of Conference negotiations in June. 

“If we’re going to be able to defend it when it goes to the Senate, we have to be able to pass it,” House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, said just before the final vote. 

Some conservatives had opposed the additional spending in the House Finance Committee’s proposal. Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, advanced a sweeping floor amendment that would slash spending and rapidly increase education freedom account eligibility; that amendment failed, 72-300. 

Medicaid rate increases; school funding overhaul

As part of the compromise, Democrats succeeded in getting an additional $40 million for Medicaid rate increases, a priority that led Democrats on the House Finance Committee to vote against the committee’s recommended budget last week. 

Sununu put $27 million in his proposed budget for Medicaid rate increases. House Finance boosted that to $92 million. The additional $40 million the House voted for Thursday brings the total to $132 million over two years, still shy of the $200 million providers had requested.

All providers except for hospitals would get a 3 percent increase; hospitals asked that their additional money be given to other organizations whose services allow people to get care at home or in long-term settings. 

Providers would also see additional increases of differing amounts. The budget headed to the Senate would give significant increases to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, community mental health centers, and agencies that provide care for substance use disorder.

The compromise also included a House proposal to change the state adequacy formula for public school funding. The proposal would restore “fiscal capacity disparity aid,” an initiative that passed in 2019 on a temporary, two-year basis. 

And it would create a sliding scale of grant awards that would depend on how high the property values are in the district and how many students attend public school. Districts with low property values would receive more.

The funding proposal would override a school funding proposal from Sununu that would raise adequacy rates across the board and phase out some targeted aid. House Republicans and Democrats had argued that education funding should be directed more toward lower-property-value towns. 

Police expansion efforts rejected

Over a series of floor amendments, House Republicans and Democrats voted to strip out a number of provisions that would expand the roles of state police. 

They voted, 241-143, to strip out a $1.4 million effort by Sununu to create a “northern border force” in New Hampshire to allow state and local police to join federal border patrol agents in immigration enforcement. They struck out a proposal to remove the current 16-officer cap on the state’s auxiliary state police force, which can be deployed during peacetime and wartime emergencies, 249-136. 

And they added in legislation to require local and state law enforcement to notify the public 24 hours in advance of conducting an immigration checkpoint, 247-139. That proposal comes after a series of surprise immigration checkpoints on Interstate 93 in 2017 and 2018 sparked intense debate. 

But some floor amendments were less successful. The House voted down an attempt by Democrats to stop a plan to repeal the Interest and Dividends Tax two years early; the House budget will now phase out the tax by 2025. And representatives rejected an effort to prevent a restructuring of the Education Trust Fund that would reduce the amount of revenue entering the fund by about $250 million a year.

The House also rejected some Republican proposals, including one to expand the eligibility cap for education freedom accounts from the current 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 500 percent. That would have brought the upper income limit for a family of four from $90,000 per year to $150,000, a much bigger leap than what the governor had proposed.

A split Republican party

Thursday’s last-minute compromise deal divided House Republicans. Some heralded it as evidence that the often chaotic and cantankerous chamber can still deliver bipartisan results.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” wrote Rep. Joe Sweeney, of Salem, on Twitter. “They bet against us. We got it done. The House has passed a Budget. HB1 & HB2 as amended passed on a VOICE VOTE.”

Other Republicans made it clear they were voting yes reluctantly.

Ahead of the session, Rep. James Spillane of Deerfield referred to 2017, when the House failed to pass a budget after fiscal conservatives opposed spending increases. That made it more difficult for the House to present an argument to the Senate in final negotiations.

“We don’t want to pass something we totally hate,” he said. “But there’s gotta be some kind of compromise that we can pass so that we have discussion items.” 

But some – including the 63 Republicans who voted no on the compromise amendment – bristled at the decision by House leadership to work with Democrats to get a final deal.

“I’m disappointed that leadership essentially got all of the Democrats to vote for the budget,” said Rep. Dan Hynes of Bedford, who voted against the budget and the amendment. “It was a Democrat budget that Republicans joined in.”

Hynes added: “Republicans have a majority. We should try at least to start putting forth a conservative, Republican budget. If that fails, then go to Democrats.” 

One representative decried the compromise on social media. “(New Hampshire Democrats) never work in good faith with (New Hampshire Republicans) for the good of the state,” Rep. Jason Janvrin, a Seabrook Republican, wrote on Twitter Thursday morning. “The ‘compromise’ amendment is DOA.” 

Two hours later, after Thursday’s caucus meeting, Janvrin had changed his mind: He voted to approve that same compromise. 

“Sometimes you have to hold your nose and press a button,” he explained later.

Hadley Barndollar, Annmarie Timmins, and Beatrice Burack contributed to this story.

This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, an education reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.