State House watchers were stunned Thursday when the narrowly-divided House of Representatives swiftly and overwhelmingly voted to accept the $15.2 billion state budget sent over by the Senate, an unusual move that prevents a protracted battle and gives both sides political wins to take home to voters.
Just a week ago, the halls of the House were swirling with rumors of a plan by some in the Democratic caucus to blow up the budget, perhaps even force Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard (R-Londonderry) out of his job. House sources told NHJournal it was motivated by Democrats’ desire to disrupt popular Gov. Chris Sununu’s plans to run for president.
But on Monday, Sununu announced he was sitting out the 2024 GOP presidential primary, and on Wednesday, the state Senate voted 24-0 to pass a budget and send it to the House, where all but 19 Democrats present voted to pass it.
Coincidence, or something more?
House Bill 1 passed on a 351-25 vote. House Bill 2 passed on a 326-53 vote. “I believe we kind of just made history,” Packard said after the vote. “This chamber deserves a lot of congratulations.”
Leaders on both sides of the aisle praised the outcome.
“We delivered a fiscally responsible spending plan that meets the needs of our state and addresses many of our top priorities without raising taxes,” said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn). “We made reforms to the emergency powers statute, included a sunset for the Granite Advantage Healthcare Program, and fully repealed our state income tax at the end of the biennium.”
“No budget is perfect,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Matt Wilhelm (D-Manchester), “but the one we’ve crafted does so much to meet the needs of Granite Staters. From the start of the budget process, House Democrats have prioritized funding for health care, public education, affordable housing, and childcare. These critical needs for both families and employers were well funded in the final budget and will greatly benefit our state.”
Among the key battles was the debate over Medicaid expansion, the federally-funded program that extends Medicaid coverage to families earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. Democrats and some Republicans, including Senate President Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), wanted the program made permanent. Some Republicans, objecting to extended welfare benefits in the wake of the impact of COVID-19 policies, wanted the expansion to end or at least face a two-year sunset.
In the end, a compromise was reached, and the current expansion will sunset after seven years. Asked about the seven-year compromise, Bradley told NHJournal in a recent podcast interview it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
“My responsibility, as I see it, is to make sure that the 50 to 60,000 people depending on Medicaid expansion — say nothing of the providers, the hospitals, the business community, all of the people who have gotten behind this coalition effort for the last nine years — our responsibility as adults is to get the job done.”
Another potential sticking point was what Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy called “a substantial, well-deserved pay raise for New Hampshire’s hard-working state employees.” The budget includes a 12 percent raise for all state employees, along with recruitment and retention incentives.
“Congratulations, New Hampshire workers!” tweeted SEIU President Rich Gulla after the vote.
For Democrats, expanded social spending and pay hikes for union workers are wins. But to get there, they also had to accept some policy changes they didn’t like, including $1.4 million for increased security at the northern border and ending the interest and dividend income tax.
“This budget guarantees that New Hampshire will truly be income tax-free on January 1, 2025,” said AFP-NH State Director Greg Moore. “The Granite State will now join the eight other states that don’t tax any income and will be the only one in the Northeast. At a time when other states, like Massachusetts, are punishing their citizens with ever-increasing income taxes, we stand as a beacon to those who want to keep what they earn and keep government out of our pockets.”
Sununu is certainly a fan, calling it “a win for kids, families, taxpayers, state employees, and the entire state of New Hampshire.” He also posted a meme of celebration:
What’s it feel like when a bipartisan budget with huge wins for NH passes on its first try in the legislature? A lot like this❗️ pic.twitter.com/4ZLc8WSvEo
— Chris Sununu (@GovChrisSununu) June 8, 2023
Not everyone backed the budget, of course. Republicans like Rep. J.R. Hoell (R-Dunbarton) complained about the rate of increased spending and questioned the size of pay raises for state employees. By taking the budget from $13.5 billion in 2022-2023 to $15.2 billion in the next biennium, lawmakers are increasing spending by close to 13 percent.
Defenders like House Finance Committee chair Ken Weyler (R-Kingson) note inflation has soared since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, and the net spending increase isn’t nearly as large.
“It’s more than I’d like to see as an increase,” Weyler said when the House passed its budget in April. “But the same thing happens when I fill up my gas tank or go to the grocery store. We have to face reality and adjust to it.”
And, Osborne and other Republicans note, the final budget included reforms to the governor’s emergency powers that many in the House Freedom Caucus wanted. In the end, all but 33 House Republicans present voted for the budget.
Perhaps more interesting are the 19 Democratic “no” votes, mostly from progressives like Reps. Amanda Toll (D-Keene), Robin Vogt (D-Portsmouth), and Jonah Wheeler (D-Peterborough). Voting against a union-backed pay hike and expanded Medicaid is politically risky, particularly in a Democratic primary.
“Oh, they’re going to hear about it,” one House source said of the 19 Democrats.
Some State House insiders noted Sununu appears to be willing to accept the new restrictions on a governor’s emergency powers, something he has inveigled against in the past. Is it a sign that he doesn’t plan on being around for another term to operate under the new rules?
The big political picture is that Democrats backed down from any plans to bring chaos to the House floor; Republicans avoided a messy fight highlighting the divisions in their extremely-slim majority; and Sununu gets to sign a budget largely devoid of divisive social issues like late-term abortion bans and stopping CRT education.
“By focusing on what makes the Granite State one of the safest and best places in which to live and work, we are putting families first and investing in crucial areas like education, affordable housing, healthcare, and public safety,” Packard said.
“Our priority is to put our constituents first and give them the necessary tools needed to truly live the way they see best. We don’t need to raise taxes or fees to do that. This budget makes that clear.”