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NH Republicans Work Together to Pass State Budget, Full-Day Kindergarten

In two legislative victories for Gov. Chris Sununu, he saw Republicans unite to pass a state budget and full-day kindergarten. The New Hampshire House and Senate met Thursday for the final session of the legislative year in their respective chambers, and behind-the-scenes negotiations on the budget led to a win for the NH GOP platform. An $11.7 billion biennium budget is on its way to Sununu’s desk for his signature.

The scene was a joyous one for Sununu and Republican lawmakers in the Executive Council chambers at the State House after the budget vote. As Sununu walked into the room, cheering and applause broke out to celebrate their victory.

“Absolutely a big win, a big win for New Hampshire,” Sununu said after the vote. “People sent us to Concord to get a job done and we did it. And we did it the right way, we brought folks in and we listened and we talked, we kept working it the best we could and we came out with what I think is incredible progress for the state of New Hampshire.”

The Senate passed a committee of conference spending plan on a party-line vote of 14-9 in its Thursday morning session. About an hour later, the House passed the same budget on a roll call vote of 198-169. Only 14 Republicans voted in opposition and five Democrats supported the budget.

The margin of passage was wider than many people expected. Just a week ago, the fate of the budget in the House was uncertain, after conservatives tanked an earlier version of the budget in April. After some wheeling and dealing with Sununu and GOP Senate leadership, members of the conservative House Republican Alliance and House Freedom Caucus said while it was an imperfect budget, it was something that had some benefits for Granite Staters.

“Although the caucus as a whole is still concerned about the level of spending, there are definite benefits for the NH taxpayers,” the Freedom Caucus said in a statement. “The majority of our caucus members were able to support the budget in order to bring these benefits to our constituents.”

The business tax cuts added by the Senate were a significant factor in motivating the conservatives to vote in favor of the budget.

“There are many Republican leaders to thank for the passage of this bill — [House] Speaker [Shawn] Jasper, Senate President [Chuck] Morse, and Governor Sununu united the party in Concord and ensured passage of this Republican budget,” said NHGOP Chair Jeanie Forrester. “Republicans of all backgrounds and stripes united to pass this budget and ensure a stable and bright future for the State of New Hampshire. This shows that when Republicans are united, Republicans win and New Hampshire is better off for it.”

A companion bill that made the policy changes reflected in the budget also passed the Senate by a 14-9 margin and in the House by a vote of 212-161.

The companion bill included a phase-in of business tax cuts, elimination of the electricity consumption tax, and authorization of online lottery games. The budget will take effect on July 1, the first day of the new state fiscal year.

While Republicans claimed a win for their legislative agenda, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley sent a fundraising email to supporters, blasting the GOP-backed spending plan.

“Gov. Sununu’s reckless and dangerous budget will take New Hampshire’s progress and turn it into disrepair,” Buckley said. “Republicans assume New Hampshire’s problems will just fix themselves. That’s not leadership, that’s ignorance. Let’s work together to make sure we have the state government we deserve in Concord.”

Later in the day, the House and Senate also passed another of Sununu’s policy priorities: funding for full-day kindergarten. The funding starts with state dollars, but after two years, it would be funded from revenue generated by newly authorized Keno.

Over the legislative session, Sununu stuck by his campaign promise to see full-day kindergarten come to fruition. He called for it in his budget, stood by his pledge after House Republicans stripped its funding from their budget, and then applauded once the Senate revitalized it as a standalone bill. He showed his flexibility when the policy and funding levels changed each time and while the final bill was not what he originally intended, he called it a “first-step.”

The House overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 191 on a roll call of 251-111. The Senate vote was 15-8, with 12 Republicans and three Democrats in favor, and two Republicans and six Democrats opposed.

It was a difficult bill for some lawmakers to stomach tying online gambling revenue to education. For Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Concord, he’s been a longtime advocate of casino-style gambling in the state, but he voted against the bill since he didn’t believe the two issues should be linked.

On the opposite end, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley is not a big supporter of Keno, but he voted in favor of the bill to invest more in early education.

Still, the bill made it through the legislature and is headed to Sununu’s desk, who applauded its passage and declared that he is “the first governor” to deliver a full-day kindergarten.

“The investments made today will give New Hampshire’s children a strong foundation for tomorrow’s future,” he said. “I am proud to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across our state, which will close the opportunity gap and provide students, regardless of their economic status, an extra step up as they enter the first grade. Full-day kindergarten is good for children and families, and a critical tool in retaining our future workforce.”

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As Trump Turns to Infrastructure Policy, So Do Sununu, NH Legislature

While all eyes were glued to former FBI director James Comey’s testimony in Congress last week, it appears that President Donald Trump has moved on to infrastructure reform, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and New Hampshire lawmakers are following suit.

Last week, the White House held a series of events to promote its infrastructure policy, including proposals to streamline federal regulations, reform air traffic control, and rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges.

Sununu met Thursday with President Donald Trump, other governors, mayors, and tribal leaders at an infrastructure summit in Washington.

“It’s going to take off like a rocket ship — moving very quickly. Together, we’re going to rebuild America,” Trump said according to a transcript of his remarks from the White House.

Trump is pitching a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would combine about $200 billion in federal funding with an additional $800 billion in state, local, and private money. The bill is not written yet and it’s not clear when Congress will take up the issue.

“For too long, Washington has slowed down your projects and driven up your costs, and driven them up beyond anything even recognizable. Those days are over,” Trump said. “We are going to move quickly, we’re going to move very, very intelligently, and we’re going to get the job done, under budget and ahead of schedule — something the government doesn’t hear too much.”

Sununu told the New Hampshire Union Leader after the summit that he believes a comprehensive infrastructure plan could win bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

“We have a President who is a builder, someone who not only knows how to get things done and bring plans to fruition but also someone who has faced how federal agencies can slow down or even block his progress,” Sununu said. “I think you’re going to see this become a major priority of his, making the federal government more of a partner and less of a barrier to these projects becoming a reality.”

Critics are questioning how committed Trump is to getting an infrastructure bill passed this year, since he hasn’t appointed anyone to key infrastructure positions within his administration yet. Democrats mostly agree with Republicans on infrastructure, but without a bill to judge, they say the devil will be in the details.

Vice President Mike Pence says it’s a campaign promise Trump will follow through on since the state of infrastructure in the United States is “not just unacceptable,” but “downright un-American.”

“This president knows that good infrastructure means good jobs, growth, opportunity, and prosperity. But as all of you well know, our nation’s infrastructure is in a truly sorry state,” Pence said. “You see it when you drive to work, you hear about it from the people who elected you. The truth is that our roads, bridges, and airports are crumbling in too many cases. And America, as a result, has been falling behind.”

Granite Staters are very familiar with the delay and cost increase of infrastructure in the state. Take the widening of Interstate 93 from Massachusetts to Manchester as an example. Sununu’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, started the process to widen the 20-mile stretch of highway to eight lanes when he was in the Corner Office in the mid-1980s. The estimated cost at the time was about $200 million.

Due to permitting delays, a lack of a stable funding source, and environmental studies, the project has been delayed for more than 20 years and the cost is now expected to be about $812 million.

“We made the point to the administration we’d take 70 percent of resources the federal government gives us now if that money would come without the inevitable delays in permits and the time to get into compliance with federal rules,” Sununu said.

According to a survey from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released earlier this year, the state’s overall infrastructure grade was a C-minus, due to the lack of time and investment the state has made into its projects. The score was only slightly higher than the United States’ grade, which was a D-plus.

The GOP-controlled legislature agreed on a number of bills last week to improve upon the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

The Senate concurred with a House amendment that would send $38 million from last year’s budget surplus back to cities and towns, so they can use it for road and bridge work. The state currently has about 150 red-listed bridges that are in poor condition and must be inspected every two years. The ASCE found that 492 of New Hampshire’s 3,848 bridges — approximately 13 percent – were structurally deficient.

The N.H. Department of Transportation will spend $6.8 million on those red-listed bridges and the rest will be sent directly to the communities.

The legislature also agreed on Senate Bill 57 that would spend $250 million from the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Trust Fund to allow businesses with contaminated well water to get state loans to hook up to public water supplies.

“This bill allows the state to make good on its commitment to pay for water contamination mitigation projects from years ago that had been suspended. Communities across the state continue to face a growing issue of contaminants in their drinking water,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, the prime sponsor of the bill.  “It is imperative that our residents have access to clean drinking water for the future of our public health and as we continue to grow business and jobs in the state.”

Those bills now head to Sununu’s desk for his signature.

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In Politically Charged Times, Instances of Bipartisanship Appear at N.H. State House

It’s not often that you get a Republican governor, GOP-led Legislature, and Democratic minority to agree on anything. Especially after the contentious 2016 presidential and U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, which saw numerous attack ads and damaging remarks, it wasn’t clear how the new dynamics at the State House would impact how policy gets done. Despite the expected political battles between the two parties, there have been some rare moments of bipartisanship in Concord.

In the past couple of weeks, there were a few bills making their way through the lawmaking process that saw bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 9 has seen some passionate testimony from advocates and lawmakers who want to strengthen New Hampshire’s rape shield law. It would protect a victim’s “sexual past, interests and predispositions” from being introduced as evidence at all stages of the judicial process, including appeals.

The bill was prompted by the rape and murder of University of New Hampshire student Lizzi Marriott in 2012, whose family had to appeal to the state Supreme Court to prevent details of her sexual past from being admitted during an appeal of the convicted murderer Seth Mazzaglia. The court originally ruled that the information could be made public because the rape shield law didn’t apply at the appeals level. Victim advocacy groups protested the decision and former Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, and all four members of the Granite State’s congressional delegation, filed a motion asking the court to reconsider. The court eventually reversed its order.

It passed Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-4 vote. Four Republicans voted the bill was “inexpedient to legislate” because it was too expansive and could remove discretion from courts. Despite those four representatives, this bill has seen supporters from both parties as it makes its way to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, introduced the bill in the Senate, where it unanimously passed in the chamber. The night before the panel’s hearing on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu urged the committee to pass the bill in a three-page letter to committee members.

“I encourage legislators to support Senate Bill 9, as passed by the Senate, to help ensure another family does not go through the painful and lengthy legal battle the Marriott family has had to undertake to protect their daughter’s privacy,” he wrote.

The committee was late to start the meeting because House Speaker Shawn Jasper and the House GOP leadership team caucused with the Republican members before the vote. He encouraged them to pass the bill as is without any new amendments.

With House GOP leadership pushing its passage, Sununu weighing in on it, and Democrats supporting the bill, SB 9 is likely to make it into law.

The other bill showing signs of bipartisanship is House Bill 640, which would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

The House has passed eight of these bills in the last 10 years, but they were always shot down in the Senate. With Massachusetts and Maine voting in November to legalize recreational marijuana, advocates say 2017 is the year for the state to catch up and it looks like the Senate will get it done.

HB 640, which would allow possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, was overwhelming approved last month by a 318-36 vote in the House. Last week, the bill moved over to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the members heard testimony on the bill.

Passage of the measure in the five-person committee is considered likely. The two Democrats, Sens. Bette Lasky of Nashua and Martha Hennessey of Hanover support the measure. Republican Sen. Harold French of Franklin also approves of it, but his GOP colleagues, Sens. Sharon Carson of Londonderry and Bill Gannon of Sandown, oppose the bill.

When it gets to the full Senate for a vote, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said he predicts it will pass.

“I think when all’s said and done we will pass decriminalization and I think both sides, the advocates as well as law enforcement, will be able to live it,” he told NH1 News.

The committee is currently debating whether the amount should change from one ounce to half an ounce. Regardless of the amount, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn said Democrats are willing to compromise.

“I’m certainly going to work to create a majority that can get something passed and get something turned into law,” he said. “I think the larger amount is fine with me but I’m willing to compromise to move the ball forward.”

It’s also expected that Sununu would sign the bill once it reaches his desk. He supported marijuana decriminalization during his gubernatorial campaign. He recently said he prefers the half an ounce amendment, but would let the legislature hammer out the details.

On some education issues, there has also been bipartisan work, especially when it comes to full-day kindergarten. Republicans also supported an effort to kill a school choice bill for the rest of the year. The move was applauded by Democrats, but it’s likely to reappear again in 2018.

This isn’t to say that New Hampshire Republicans and Democrats are working together on everything. Democrats fervently opposed a right-to-work bill that came up earlier this year, and they were also players in the House’s failure to pass a budget. Also, just look at the New Hampshire Democratic Party and New Hampshire Republican Party‘s Twitter accounts. They are often filled with mudslinging tweets at the opposing party. Yet, on several big issues at the State House, it appears both parties can be bipartisan.

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