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House, Senate Finalize State Budget in Conference Committee. Full Votes to Come Next Week.

After four days of back-to-back negotiations between the New Hampshire House and Senate, lawmakers on the state budget conference committee finally decided Wednesday on an $11.7 billion two-year spending plan. Although its widely expected to pass the Senate, there is still a chance that it could fail in the volatile House.

“This is a budget the legislature and the people of New Hampshire can be proud of,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper after the committee approved the final version of the budget. “This budget provides resources to address the opioid crisis, mental illness, and domestic violence, includes several reforms to state government, and keeps spending in check. We’ve achieved a balance that ensures our citizens will have access to services they need while reducing the tax burden.”

Whether it will garner enough Democratic or conservative votes remains to be seen. Democrats claim Republicans are not spending all of the revenue available to the state and criticize that a workforce training proposal, known as Granite Workforce, was cut from the budget. It would have provided training and wage subsidies for certain types of workers since the state is dealing with a worker shortage.

“Democrats have made it very clear: we will not support a budget that asks working people to dig further into their wallets while the elite get more handouts,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn. “Unfortunately, our efforts to stand up for everyday people have been rejected at every turn. The reality is that this Trump-like, Republican budget agreement caves to the wealthy elite and ignores those who are most in need.”

Also, Democrats still don’t like that language was added to the budget that prohibits the state from giving money to health care facilities to provide abortions, which indicates that House Democrats are most likely not going to vote in favor of the budget in the full session next week.

State Reps. Al Baldasaro, R-Nashua, and Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, brought up that issue on Twitter.

Little has changed from the Senate version of the budget passed last month, with a few notable exceptions. The new budget includes an amendment mandating new work requirements for people enrolled in the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Low-income adults would have to work, attend job training, or go to school for at least 20 hours per week to qualify for the New Hampshire Health Protection Program. If the federal government rejects the work requirement, as it did last year, expanded Medicaid would end by 2018.

Some advocacy groups, like New Futures — which focuses on mental health, substance abuse, and children issues — were critical that an amendment in the budget would allow the governor to divert money away from the state’s Alcohol Fund, which is used for substance abuse treatment, prevention, and education programs. The governor would be allowed to reach into the fund to help pay for operations at the state’s juvenile detention center in case of emergencies after approval from the fiscal committee.

“Weakening the addiction treatment system in the midst of New Hampshire’s devastating opioid crisis will place the lives of people struggling with addiction at risk,” said Linda Saunders Paquette, CEO and president of New Futures. “This irresponsible decision by the committee cannot be overstated, and will be felt for years to come, as our public health crisis will only intensify without long-term sustainable investments.”

The budget includes cuts to the state’s businesses profits tax and business enterprise tax, but lawmakers also eliminated the electricity consumption tax, which generates about $5.5 million for the state each year.

“This budget also eliminates the Electric Consumption Tax, helping our state move in the right direction to reduce the burdensome electric rates paid for by homeowners and businesses,” said Senate Finance Chair Gary Daniels, R-Milford. “By making changes that will result in lower monthly bills, we put money back in our employer’s pockets and create an improved, lower cost state to run a business.”

With these tax cuts, House GOP leadership is hopeful that enough members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus join in supporting the budget. The caucus still has concerns that the state spending levels are too high, indicating that some of its members will probably vote against it.

The House needs a majority to pass the budget and they need conservative support in order to do that. Jasper said he is optimistic the budget will get passed in the House next week. Behind the scenes, top GOP officials are starting to whip votes in order to make sure that it happens.

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What Options Can House Leadership Take in Fisher Scandal?

The news story that has made the rounds this past week involved accusations that a New Hampshire lawmaker created a misogynistic online message board, making derogatory and inappropriate comments about women. Gov. Chris Sununu and the New Hampshire Republican Party have called for Rep. Robert Fisher, R-Laconia, to resign, but he refuses to do so. This leaves House leaders with only a few choices on how to handle the situation.

The Daily Beast first reported Tuesday a link between Fisher and the online Reddit forum “The Red Pill.” The Red Pill currently claims 200,000 subscribers as a “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.”

In 2012, Fisher, under the alias “pk_atheist,” created the The Red Pill forum near the end of his first campaign for the N.H. House of Representatives, in which he ran as a Democrat. In 2014, he switched to the Republican Party and is now serving his second term in office. He currently doesn’t sit on any committees, at his own request, and out of the 114 votes so far during the 2017 session, Fisher has cast votes in about half of them.

Fisher is under fire for openly questioning whether “rape is bad.” He wrote, “I’m going to say it — Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

Rep. Robert Fisher

N.H. State Rep. Robert Fisher, R-Laconia (Photo Credit: N.H. House of Representatives)

He also wrote that women’s personalities are “lackluster and boring, serving little purpose in day to day life.” And once commenting that, “it is literally the [female] body that makes enduring these things worth it.”

At first, Fisher denied the allegations. In response to journalist inquiries, he said he would “stand strong for men’s rights.” On Thursday night, he admitted to writing the posts but said most of his comments were taken out of context.

“It was a debate about absolute truth that was recurring on my forums back in [2008],” he wrote in an official statement published by The Laconia Daily Sun. “The default position for most on the aptly dubbed ‘gripe corner’ was devil’s advocate, which made for lively debate. As it turns out, context is very important when quoting somebody. I suspect they teach it in journalism courses, but it seems like it should be basic common sense.”

Sununu, House Speaker Shawn Jasper, NHGOP Chair Jeanie Forrester, and House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff called on Fisher to resign, but he is refusing.

“I’m going to continue fighting for what I believe in. Smaller government, lower taxes, more liberty, gay, straight, and transgender rights, (yes, for all my supposed small mindedness and misogyny, I’m firmly pro LGBT) and family court reform,” Fisher said. “For those of you who read this entire thing to see my resignation, sorry to disappoint.”

Jasper said Fisher’s statement lacked an apology.

“I read his letter twice and really viewed it as just going around and around the barn,” he told WMUR. “I didn’t see it as an apology or walking anything back. I thought it was a very circular argument that didn’t change anything.”

The story about Fisher’s involvement with the online forum sparked a firestorm on Twitter, with many national media outlets reporting on the controversy. Several state legislators are also calling on him to resign.

“Lately though, it has been hard to find things to be proud of in the State House,” wrote Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, in a Saturday op-ed on the Concord Monitor. “I am not proud, in fact I am devastated and sad to say that rape culture is pervasive at the State House.”

Expect to see lawmakers take to the House floor in its executive session on Thursday to discuss the scandal and call on him to resign. However, House leaders are limited in what they can do.

While most people agree that Fisher’s comments are inappropriate, they don’t technically go against House standards since they are just words and not actions. There are steps the House could take to remove Fisher from office. The state constitution gives the House the power to expel, censure, or reprimand a member for disrespect to the body, but historical precedent makes it unlikely that anything will be done.

The last time a state representative was expelled was in 1913 and that was for taking bribes. There have been many lawmakers over the years, though, who have faced possible removal, but they have usually stepped down on their own.

For example, in 2016 former Rep. Kyle Tasker stepped down after an arrest on drug charges and accusations that he used a computer to lure a teenage girl for sex. Also, Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said Hillary Clinton should be shot by a firing squad for treason. Many called for his resignation, but he still currently serves as a representative.

In Fisher’s case, there are three ways the House could “punish” him. The Legislative Ethics Committee could recommend expulsion, censure, or reprimand after they look into it in a mostly closed-door procedure.

The second way he could be punished is for a House member to make a motion from the floor, where there would then be a debate, and then a vote. This could be a possible method some lawmakers take during Thursday’s session, but it’s still unlikely anything would happen in a Republican-controlled House.

The third option would be to appoint a special committee to investigate the matter in a nonpublic session and then release the findings to public. Jasper indicated he prefers this method if it came up.

Yet, it’s increasingly likely that the voters in his district will ultimately decide what to do. If Fisher decides to run for reelection next year, the voters could kick him out of office. Only time will tell if the legislature or the voters will decide Fisher’s fate.

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