On Wednesday, the House Finance Committee passed HB 1 and HB 2, their $13.8 billion budget proposals, setting up an internal party fight between House Republicans and GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.  The House will vote on their version of the budget during a three-day marathon House session next week at the Sportsplex in Bedford, but the state Senate will get its say, too.

A final budget will then be hammered out in June during the Committee of Conference sessions. 

“House Finance passed a budget that is based on conservative, realistic revenue estimates and contains many aspects that Republicans campaigned on and can be proud to vote for. This budget contains a treasure trove of tax cuts for NH businesses and taxpayers on a scale we haven’t seen in recent history.” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne said.

The libertarian wing of the party has expressed frustrations with Sununu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. They urged him to re-open the state’s economy more quickly, and they complain about his continued extension of the statewide mask mandate. Part of their budget includes legislation that would put limits on the governor’s emergency power.

Sununu hasn’t kept his dismay over the legislation a secret. He called the efforts to restrict his emergency powers “silly” and has repeatedly dismissed the House’s work as an “off the rails” budget.

“They passed a budget that is not fiscally balanced and packed with non-budgetary items that have no place in HB2. Nevertheless, we trust the Senate will do the right thing and pass a final budget that is fiscally sound while delivering tax cuts for the people of NH.” Sununu said in a statement.

House Democrats don’t like the budget, either, sending out a press release with the headline: “House Finance Republicans Pass Budget Loaded With Cuts.”

House Republicans say they’re happy with the results.

“Did they really say ‘loaded with cuts?’ It’s like we wrote the headline,” one NHGOP insider told NHJournal. “Yes. We cut the budget.”

Supporters of the house proposal disagree with the Governor’s viewpoint.

Rep. Jess Edwards, a Republican from Auburn, told NHJournal the governor’s anger over the legislature limiting emergency power is misplaced.

“The Governor should recognize what we’ve done in HB 2 as simply saying that the legislature matters,” Edwards said. “That after the governor declares a state of emergency, the legislative input is essential to continuing the state of emergency beyond 21 days. And I think most people… will think that’s pretty reasonable.” 

Conservative activist and former state Representative JR Hoell, who has clashed with Governor Sununu on budget matters in the past, agrees with what the Freedom Caucus is doing.

“I think they’re trying to come up with a responsible budget. The Freedom Caucus also understands that there are direct ties between the state of emergency and business closures and how society functions as a whole,” Hoell said. “They’re trying to address both concurrently, and I think that’s a prudent decision.”

Rep Terry Roy, a conservative State Representative from Deerfield, defended limiting the Governor’s emergency powers in the budget.

“We never envisioned a state of emergency lasting this long, and we want to ensure that in the future, should there arise another state of emergency that goes beyond 30 days, the people are represented in what amounts to lawmaking by the executive branch,” Roy said. “It is easy to Monday morning quarterback the one person who we put in charge of handling an emergency. I for one would not want to be in that position. And that is exactly the point of what we are trying to do. We want to ensure that the responsibility is shared by all of us in a long-term situation.”

“What we are trying to do is ensure it doesn’t happen again with a Governor who might not be as level-headed as this one has been,” Roy added.

The polls show that Sununu has the voters on his side, though the trend has been steadily downward in 2021. Sununu’s approval rating on COVID-19 remains an impressive 72 percent. However, his personal approval is just 49 percent, down 10 points among conservatives in the past month and down 13 points among moderates.

The House Finance Committee passed the amended version of the budget strictly on party lines, 12 to 9, on Wednesday, signifying a unified Republican caucus – so far. Expect that unity to be tested when the full House votes on the budget package next Wednesday.