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How Abortion, Taxes Could Determine the Fate of the N.H. State Budget

New Hampshire lawmakers only have until Thursday to finalize what the final state budget will look like for the next biennium, but there are two issues that could hurt its chances of getting passed in the full House.

One of the policies is not even related to monetary funds, it’s about a family planning contracts provision that was hotly contested in the Senate version of the state budget last month.

The Senate added language to its budget prohibiting the state from giving money to health care facilities to provide abortions. Republicans argued the language simply codifies current practice under the federal Hyde Amendment, but Democrats called it an attack on women’s health.

“The decision by House conferees to accept the Hyde amendment as part of the state budget proposal is a completely unnecessary attack on women’s health,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee and a budget conferee.

“Because federal law already prohibits the use of tax dollars on abortion services, this amendment is a political statement, not a budget statement,” she added.

A conference committee is working to compromise on differences between the $11.8 billion budget passed in the Senate and an $11.9 billion spending plan proposed by the House Finance Committee that was eventually rejected by the full House after conservatives voted against the budget with Democrats.

Wallner blasted Republicans for sneaking the provision into the budget without public input.

“These provisions never received a public hearing in either the House or Senate, in direct violation of the legislative process,” she said. “If Republican lawmakers are going to turn the budget process into a partisan debate over social issues, the least they can do is follow their own rules and be transparent about it.”

Budget writers began hammering out the details in the conference committee on Friday, with less than a week to submit a budget report by Thursday, so both legislative chambers can vote on the final version of the state budget by June 22. The current fiscal year will end on June 30.

The move to include the abortion provision signals that House GOP leadership is looking to work with conservative members, instead of Democrats, to get a budget passed. Several Democrats in the House have reportedly called the provision a “deal breaker” and if it’s included in the final version, they will vote against it.

The Senate, since it’s a smaller body of 24 members, is not as politically divided as the 400 legislators in the House. The House has several different caucuses, all wanting something different out of the state budget.

In April, the House failed to pass its version of a budget for the first time since records were kept in 1969. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus sided with Democrats to defeat the plan crafted by House GOP leadership citing that spending was too high and there weren’t enough tax cuts.

The Senate version included cuts to the state’s business profits tax and business enterprise tax. House Speaker Shawn Jasper took to Twitter to indicate his support for these cuts.

But the House Freedom Caucus and one of its members, Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, asked if those were the only tax cuts planning to be included in the final version.

With more, or other, tax cuts in the state budget, conservatives could be more inclined to support the GOP-led spending plan. Yet, if the abortion provision and no tax cuts are included in the final version before the House next week, there might not be a budget passed before the end of the fiscal year, which means lawmakers would need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the state government at its current levels and then come back to negotiate a budget again in the fall.

A lot could still happen in the final negotiation days.

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Gov. Sununu’s Stance on Paris Climate Deal Draws Ire of Democrats

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu made waves in New Hampshire politics over the weekend as he became the first governor in the New England region to say that he “stands by” President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. As expected, Democrats are using his words as political ammo to attack his position on environmental issues, but none more so than a gubernatorial candidate challenging Sununu for the Corner Office in 2018.

“I don’t have a real reaction right now to be honest,” Sununu told New Hampshire Public Radio on Friday. “It’s nothing I’ve really thought about. It’s a federal issue at this point. It’s nothing. I’m focused on the 603 and what we do here.”

He continued to say that withdrawing from the global climate agreement, which involves nearly 200 nations aiming to slow the effects of climate change, could be significant, but he hasn’t spent a lot of time looking at the issue

“You know it’s not my job to go through the whole accord and look at the in-depth impacts across the country, economically,” he said. “The president has done that, his team has done that, and they’ve made the decision they feel is in the best interest of the United States and I stand by that.”

Although some people can interpret that statement as taking a non-position, many supporters and opponents are reading into it that he agrees with Trump’s decision to leave the climate deal.

Republicans took to Twitter to reiterate their support for Sununu and Trump, like Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester.

Sununu’s statement is significant because it marks a drastic departure from other states in New England, including his fellow Republican governors.

Four states in the region announced they were joining a bipartisan coalition committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The U.S. Climate Alliance was started by the Democratic governors of California, New York, and Washington state.

Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he decided to join the alliance, along with Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott. The Democratic governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island have also joined the coalition.

Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage has not publicly made a statement about Trump’s decision to pull out of the climate pact, making Sununu the only GOP governor in the area, so far, to “stand by” Trump.

The New Hampshire Republican Party has also applauded Trump’s decision, saying the Paris climate deal did not put U.S. taxpayers first.

State Democrats are using Sununu’s words as political fodder to motivate their base and prepare for Democratic candidates to challenge him next year. As expected, all four Democratic members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation disagree with Trump’s decision.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party is calling Sununu out for commenting on other federal issues, like the GOP-led repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the president’s travel ban to several Muslim-majority countries. They’re also blasting him for being an environmental engineer who “must not understand, the environment does not recognize borders.”

Steve Marchand, a Democratic candidate who announced that he would run for governor in 2018, has also taken issue with Sununu’s stance on the global climate pact.

In his first official statement since he announced his candidacy in April, Marchand said as governor, he would support the Paris Climate Agreement and advocate for New Hampshire’s involvement in the U.S. Climate Alliance.

“Unlike many of the nation’s governors, Governor Sununu has not pushed back on President Trump’s decision,” he said. “Both President Trump and Governor Sununu are wrong.”

Marchand, who ran for governor in 2016 but lost the Democratic nomination to eventual nominee Colin Van Ostern, is pushing his progressive message by meeting with various Democratic groups around the state. He is a former mayor of Portsmouth and said Portsmouth was the first community in New Hampshire to sign onto the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign and the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

“I’ve been a passionate progressive on environmental protection and energy policy throughout my public life, as a mayor, and as a candidate for statewide office,” said Marchand. “I strongly believe we can lower energy costs for consumers, reduce demand for energy, create New Energy jobs, and protect our natural beauty if we are willing to lead on energy and the environment. I’ve got a specific plan for New Hampshire that will do this, and being a part of the U.S. Climate Alliance would improve our ability to do the right thing — both economically and morally. President Trump will not lead, and neither will Governor Sununu. I have, and as Governor, I will.”

Over the entire weekend, Marchand and the NHDP have taken to Twitter to criticize Sununu for not being a supporter of the climate deal. It can be expected for the Democrats to raise this as a campaign issue in the 2018 governor’s race.

In several other states, various cities have said they would still adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement’s terms and reduce their carbon footprint. The only town in New Hampshire to take a similar environmental stance is Hanover, which voted in May to establish a goal of transitioning to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050.

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House Approves Full-Day Kindergarten, Democrats Claim Legislative Victory

In a win for Gov. Chris Sununu’s agenda, the New Hampshire House gave a preliminary vote of approval for full-day kindergarten. While some are calling it a bipartisan victory, the state Democratic Party is taking credit for the proposal getting passed.

Senate Bill 191 calls for providing $14.5 million during the next two fiscal years to help communities that want to implement full-day kindergarten.

In Sununu’s budget proposal, he provided $9 million a year to establish programs in the neediest communities of the Granite State. That original funding amount passed the Senate at the end of March on a 21-2 vote.

The House Education Committee changed the funding to the full $14.5 million to allow all communities, regardless of need, the opportunity to implement the program. About three-quarters of New Hampshire’s communities currently have full-day kindergarten, but the state only pays half the per-student amount for children in kindergarten. The House approved that funding on Thursday on a 247-116 vote.

“I applaud the House for taking this important step today to provide financial support to communities that choose to support and create full-day kindergarten programs,” Sununu said in a statement. “I believe strongly that this is the right thing to do and I look forward to continuing to work with the legislature as the measure moves forward.”

The roll call vote saw 87 Republicans join 160 Democrats in supporting the bill. Many education advocates cheered the bipartisan work of the House and Senate for getting the bill passed.

“With today’s vote, strong bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate are on record supporting increased state funding for full-day kindergarten,” said Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network. “We are encouraged that lawmakers from both parties have made investing kids in the Granite State a priority.”

The New Hampshire Democratic Party framed it another way. In their own press release, chairman Ray Buckley called Sununu’s original proposal of funding full-day kindergarten at $9 million a year a “half-baked plan.” He also highlighted that no Democrats opposed the bill and a majority of Republicans (115 of 202) voted against the legislation.

“Today, Democrats held him accountable for his broken promise by finally providing every child in the state full-day kindergarten instead of ceding to his half-baked budget proposal,” he said. “Democrats carried the bill across the finish line in the House, with every single Democratic House member voting for the legislation while a majority of Republican members voted against it. Sununu’s inability to lead almost cost us full-day kindergarten. Today was another example of why we need Democrats in the State House.”

House Republicans are pretty divided over whether the state should pay for full-day kindergarten.

On the House floor, Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, said she opposed the bill because it removes local control from the communities and removes parental choice.

“It was never intended that 5-year-olds would be sitting at a desk for six hours per day,” she said. “We must allow districts to keep decisions regarding early childhood education as a local control issue so that we can fix Kindergarten and restore it to its intended purpose, which is to foster the individual talents and abilities of each child through exploration, creativity and movement.”

Other Republicans say the bill doesn’t mandate that schools offer full-day kindergarten, but simply allows communities access to funds to help pay for it.

“If Kindergarten is important, why don’t we fund it for everyone?” said Rep. Terry Wolf, R-Bedford. “This bill helps offset the downshifting of costs from state to local communities. Funding education makes a statement that we value education and support our communities.”

SB 191 was one to watch on Thursday because House GOP leadership did not take an official position on the bill or whip any votes. House Speaker Shawn Jasper was presiding over the session, so he didn’t cast a vote, but House Majority Leader Dick Hinch voted in favor of the legislation.

Leaders of the two conservative House caucuses voted against the bill, showing there isn’t widespread support among those factions for full-day kindergarten. Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford, who is a leader of the House Republican Alliance, and Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who is a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, opposed the bill.

SB 191 now heads to the House Finance Committee for representatives to look at the cost since the measure uses state revenues. In an earlier session, members of the committee refused to put any money for kindergarten in its version of the state budget.

After the committee makes a recommendation, the bill returns to the full House for another vote. If the House approves funding again at the $14.5 million-a-year level, then it will go to the Senate.

The Senate could then approve the bill at that funding level or the chamber could reject it in favor of their previous $9 million-a-year plan for targeted communities. If that happens, it’s likely a committee of conferences between the two chambers would be established to negotiate a compromise.

Regardless, the House’s approval of full-day kindergarten on Thursday is a good indication that a bill at some funding level will end up on Sununu’s desk, fulfilling one of his campaign promises.

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House Votes to Review Controversial Online Comments From Fisher, Frost

In an unusual move, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to review controversial comments made online by two lawmakers. Yet, Republican leaders aren’t expecting the committee to find that they violated any House ethics codes.

It started as an inquiry into Rep. Robert Fisher, R-Laconia, and comments he made in an online forum that were construed as misogynistic, but Republicans successfully added Rep. Sherry Frost, D-Dover, in the inquiry for tweets she wrote earlier this year that some found “offensive.”

Before the House met in their regularly scheduled session on Thursday, it was anticipated that House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff would bring up a motion for a House committee to investigate Fisher’s comments.

“At any time any member says anything or does anything that holds this body in disrespect, it affects each and every one of us,” he said on the House floor.

Fisher was identified as the creator of a a Reddit forum called “The Red Pill” in a report from The Daily Beast last week. His posts on the message board garnered criticism for being disrespectful toward women and normalizing rape culture. He admitted to the comments, which were made as far back as 2008, but said they were taken out of context.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Jeanie Forrester have called for his resignation, but Fisher insists he will not step down.

Frost posted tweets earlier this year that said more terrorism is perpetrated by “white men who claim Christianity than by Muslims in the USA.” She also tweeted, “The people (read; men) telling me to ‘calm down’ & ‘not take it so hard’ are making me homicidal.”

The NHGOP criticized her for the tweets, calling her a “radical” and “a threat to her colleagues.”

“All representatives should be held to the same standard,” said Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, who put forward the amendment to include Frost. “This body cannot pick and choose who they support and who they do not.”

The House voted 182-180 to include Frost in the inquiry and then approved of the investigation of both lawmakers by a 307-56 vote, with Fisher and Frost voting in favor of the review.

“I think the truth will be out at the hearing,” Fisher told the Concord Monitor. Frost said she has nothing to hide.

The Legislative Administration Committee’s reviews will be limited to comments made by the two lawmakers during the current legislative session, which means Fisher’s previous posts will not be included, but Frost’s tweets will be reviewed.

After that, the committee will make a recommendation to the full House for each lawmaker. The committee could recommend that no action should take place, or that the representatives should be reprimanded, censured, or expelled. The House will then vote on the recommendations.

“Referring this matter to the Legislative Administration Committee will allow for an investigation into Representative Fisher’s involvement with this forum since his election to the New Hampshire House,” Shurtleff said in a statement. “As elected officials it is our duty to act with honor both inside the State House and out, and I am confident that the Legislative Administration Committee will give this serious matter the consideration it deserves.”

His statement didn’t include any comments about Frost, though.

Some lawmakers criticized Republicans for including Frost in the inquiry, saying the two lawmaker’s comments do not equate to equal treatment. New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley took to Twitter to criticize the decision.

Yet, House Speaker Shawn Jasper admitted that he doesn’t believe the committee will find that the lawmakers violated any ethics codes.

“I don’t think we’ve ever done anything quite like this,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “Normally there would be something that falls under the ethics guidelines, and there’d be a complaint made by somebody and it would go to the ethics committee.”

Some lawmakers questioned why they spent time debating the issue.

Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, motioned to table the matter, but it overwhelmingly failed.

“This is being used as a political football,” he said. “We need to have some more harmony in this body.”

Protesters lined the hallways of the State House and gathered outside on the plaza to protest Fisher’s comments. A protester’s sign said, “Rep. Fisher: This feminist says resign!” Another read, “Rape culture: He isn’t a symptom, he is a disease. Fisher must go.”

Fisher’s review hearing will begin on Tuesday, with Frost’s review to follow on Wednesday.

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Two Major Issues Democrats Have With Gov. Sununu’s Budget

After Gov. Chris Sununu released his $12.1 billion biennium budget on Thursday, the overall sentiment among Democrats and Republicans was “the devil is in the details.”

Those details will be hammered out in the next few months as the House and Senate make their recommendations to Sununu’s 2018-2019 budget. Overall it appears both parties believe it’s a solid budget with room for improvement. Republicans praised it for being “a realistic, conservative budget which is transparent, forward thinking and strengthens education, supports our cities and towns and focuses on solving real problems that have plagued taxpayers for years,” according to Senate leadership.

Democrats were glad that Sununu kept some of his campaign promises, but were also critical that he didn’t provide too many details on proposals they deemed important, including Medicaid expansion and full-day kindergarten.

“I am very concerned about the $500 million cut from state agency budget requests and what that could mean to the citizens of New Hampshire,” House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff said in a statement. “The governor’s budget address made no mention of the successful NH Health Protection Program, leaving serious unanswered questions for the 50,000 Granite Staters who rely on the program for their health care coverage.”

In his budget proposal, Sununu includes more than $50 million in spending to address an existing shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) fiscal 2017 budget.

In January, DHHS projected a $65.9 million dollar budget shortfall. Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers pushed back against the accusation his department overspent, claiming instead Medicaid costs did not decline as the legislature expected during the last budget debate. That put Sununu in the awkward position of writing a budget with an unexpected hole in it, while also figuring out how to handle Medicaid for the state.

As for the deficit, Sununu is requiring the commissioner to make quarterly reports to him and members of the legislature leadership “about where we actually stand on our true costs, so we can become a more nimble government that’s responsive, not just reactive.”

“As governor, I won’t make people wait until after an election to discover we may have a shortfall,” he said in remarks during a Thursday joint legislative session. “We have to be transparent. We have to be honest with the people and honest with ourselves.”

Democrats’ claim he didn’t mention Medicaid expansion is true. He only mentioned the program when talking about the DHHS deficit, since that’s where the department says its money went.

“And where we have failed in the past, I am pushing for true accounting of our Medicaid program so we can reconcile estimated Medicaid payments to actual costs,” Sununu said. “And as we go forward, be sure that we won’t wait two years to check in on them again.”

He doesn’t say if he plans to expand, repeal, or replace NH Health Protection Program. The Medicaid program in New Hampshire received bipartisan support in the legislature last year when lawmakers extended the program until Dec. 31, 2018.

That legislation gives Sununu wiggle room as he attempts to balance politics and health coverage for the state. As Washington debates repealing the Affordable Care Act, several states including New Hampshire are waiting to see how Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration handles the issue.

Sununu was reluctant to say anything about Medicaid on the campaign trail, commenting he was worried about financing the program in the long-term, but didn’t mention repeal. Not wanting to permanently fund the program, he told voters it was better to let the federal government make the first move.

Before the budget speech, Democrats waited to see if Sununu would fulfill his campaign promise of funding full-day kindergarten. His proposal includes $9 million a year for full-day kindergarten, but after the speech Democrats sought clarity on determining which communities get funding.

Sununu said funds, which will be awarded in addition to education adequacy grants, would target the communities that need it most based on a community’s property wealth, the number of students on subsidized lunch programs, and communities with a high number of English as a second language students.

“So I am proud today to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across the state,” he added.

There’s a big distinction to be made with the state “mandating” full-day kindergarten and simply funding full-day kindergarten. Several Democrats sought to require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, but Sununu’s budget doesn’t make that a requirement. He’s leaving it up to the individual cities and towns, but they’ll receive more funds if they opt-in.

In towns that vote to implement full-day kindergarten, school districts presently only receive 50 percent of the state’s per-pupil grant for kindergarten students. Under Sununu’s plan, the neediest communities can apply for additional grants to make the program possible.

Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, who sits on the House Education Committee, said she wasn’t thrilled about Sununu’s full-day kindergarten funding proposal. Sullivan said it should be a local community’s decision, and could eventually lead to mandated full-day kindergarten.

House Speaker Shawn Jasper told reporters Sununu’s full-day kindergarten proposal probably won’t be included in the House version of the budget.

“I think that is going to be a stretch,” he said. “I think if you looked around the hall, you probably didn’t see a lot of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans on that issue. We’ll have different priorities in some areas than the governor has, certainly. I don’t think there’s ever been a budget that’s gone into the House and come out looking the same way, but he’s given us a great starting point.”

The two-year budget must be passed by June 30 to go into effect on July 1 of the next fiscal year. The House Finance Committee will look at Sununu’s budget before making a recommendation to the full House. After the House passes its version of a budget, it goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which will recommend its own proposals to the full Senate, before going to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto in spring.

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Dem Rep. Says Parental Notification Bill Shrinks Importance of Sex Education

Some New Hampshire Democrats believe a bill that would require school districts to provide parents at least two weeks’ notice about material related to human sexuality is overstepping the state’s role in local education.

“My concern is that it mandates a two-week notice,” said Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester. “The biggest problem is that this will not solve the problem. Every school principal needs to talk with their teachers about the importance of parent communication. It should be a local matter as to how that policy is developed based on the school and [grade] level.”

Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, is the prime sponsor of the bill (House Bill 103) and she introduced it after her 8-year-old son said he watched a video at school that depicted a young boy being sexually abused by his uncle and confronting his abuser alone.

Sullivan said the bill would “simply give parents more control and a stronger voice.”

“Local control begins with the parents and the taxpayers,” she told NH Journal. “We have seen parents pushed further and further out of the conversation when it comes to education.”

This isn’t the first time this bill has been in the Legislature. Former Gov. Maggie Hassan previously vetoed the legislation in 2015. It was then reintroduced in the House in 2016, but ultimately failed in the Senate.

State law already allows parents or legal guardians to have a say if they believe that material put in front of their children by schools is objectionable. They would need to notify the school principal in writing of the material they object to and then the student can participate in an “alternative agreed upon” curriculum by the school district and the parent that still meets state requirements for education in that subject area.

Heath said the two-week parental notification is unnecessary because parents can already “opt out” their student if they find any curriculum to be questionable, and the bill undermines the importance of sexual education in schools.

“Good communication with parents is essential,” she told NH Journal. “At the same time, some parents and especially those to the ‘far right’ don’t believe their children should learn anything beyond the ‘basics.’ I understand that, hence the ‘opt out’ [option]. However, House Bill 103 sends the wrong message about the importance of comprehensive sexuality education.”

The national Republican Party platform includes a section on the importance of returning control of public education to the states, school districts, and parents of students. In regards to sexual education, they call for a replacement of “family planning programs.”

“We renew our call for replacing ‘family planning’ programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior,” the platform states.

The New Hampshire Republican Party platform does not include anything about sexual education.

Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sexual education programs. Three states — Arizona, Nevada, and Utah — require parental consent before a child can receive instruction.

The bill will now head to the Senate Education Committee to debate the bill and with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in the corner office, it’s possible that he would sign the legislation into law. He has not indicated if he supports the bill yet.

 

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