It’s budget season and I thought this update should be focused on what we’re seeing in terms of GOP policy priorities and budget proposals.
Much to my dismay, we are seeing the return of tired policies that do nothing to improve New Hampshire or move her forward. For example, a spate of bills increasing gun rights and attacking labor rights, abortion rights and voting rights signal a return of the NH GOP’s greatest hits. But this agenda is just so lacking for the times in which we find ourselves in 2021. We are not seeing progress as a state on any meaningful goals and in my experience it has a lot to do with a failure of ideas. I say GOP bills fall into one of two categories….
You Are Not the Boss of Me and You Are Not the Boss of You!
When you separate the bills in the GOP controlled House in this way, you see a pattern. Republican House committees are very concerned with extending their own right to control power and remove all barriers to their own personal freedoms, up-to and including voter suppression efforts and stopping fair redistricting, again. They want laws that let them run things as they see fit and skirt or squelch authority wherever it resides. Although in fairness, this tendency has risen with the large number of Free Staters elected to the GOP caucus in 2020. The idea that we need to enshrine lawlessness, so that those who reject civil society/rules can feel comfortable, has been on full display. The regular GOP House members seem to be OK going along with most of it. Whatever they want to do with their guns: shooting people from the comfort of their cars, firing weapons on public lands (and being able to sue town officials if anyone tries to stop them), riding snow mobiles armed, brandishing weapons in public, those are the laws they believe you elected them to pass. But, if you want your right to a no-excuse absentee ballot (which worked great during the pandemic) that’s a bridge too far. If you want a strong union so your pension isn’t stolen, the right to serve your community without personal liability, liberty over your own body or medical decisions, or the preservation of your constitutional right to separation of church and state and a public education, you’d better start lobbying.
Is NH government looking out for the long term?
The other issue that concerns me is an inability to look out for the long-term. Short-term thinking is a real killer for public service and local budgets. It is the antithesis of what makes NH’s local control work – and we should all be concerned about this lack of responsible foresight in policy-makers. We’re seeing little in the way of the policy stability so needed for planning by individuals and businesses. On my own committee, we saw a defunding of NH Saves, the most popular Energy Efficiency program in the state, and a gutting of renewable energy compliance payments that threaten to bring clean energy investment to a halt. A partisan letter to the Public Utilities’ Commission appears to have stopped the 3 year energy plan, approved by the utilities, that was supposed to have started in January. This has even Eversource complaining that it was disruptive to their business planning to be without the agreed upon Energy Efficiency Plan in place. We had to fight hard for advancements on Municipal Net Metering and a policy on Community Power which had been stymied when we passed them 2 years ago, by the Governor’s veto. Apparently he needed to make sure we didn’t get credit for the bill passing, so he delayed this and many other bills (like his very limited version of Family Medical Leave which was put in the budget trailer bill), until he could claim the credit. Although the House is made up of citizen legislators, we can still bring professionalism to our work; it was painful to watch people who truly do not know what they’re doing, pushing policies that originate out-of-state without a care for how they will work in New Hampshire’s economy.
The major exception in this session was a bipartisan effort to stop another attempt by big business to bust unions. Stopping the anti-union SB61, for the umpteenth time, was a welcomed surprise. The ability for labor to organize is a cornerstone of a healthy economy and the data prove that out. There was a great deal of outside money (and from Americans for Prosperity NH) promoting this bill again. But the House stood firmly with labor when 25 Republican members stood with Democrats in a vote that put workers rights over corporate interests for another cycle.
Education – the heart of our communities
A rash of education bills he supports (HB20, HB608, HB504, SB130) that seek to divert public tax dollars away from NH schools. They have been dubbed the most egregious give away of public dollars of any voucher bills in the nation. Partly because prior voucher bills have come with limiting factors to prevent massive amounts of funding leaving schools all at once. HB20 and SB130, have none. If you are a student in NH, attending public, private, parochial or home school, you can take money from your local school for any ‘educational activity’ you choose. There are no scholastic requirements, no rules for accountability and no means for the school to decipher whether the student is getting an adequate education. How could anyone get away with privatizing the public good while putting our schools even further into the red? There isn’t even a fiscal note to give the legislature an impact on local towns. The calculation seems to be that the public can be duped by saying two words, School Choice, but those were provided by corporate outsiders like Americans For Prosperity who are privatizing the pubic good all across this country for their own profit. People should be outraged. But instead, they are unaware that a dangerous policy is not only being considered, it is being pushed on the state of New Hampshire. This was a wish list item of the Free State Project, as described by founder, Jason Sorens. Privatizing public education is knocking at our door and we need to pay attention to Concord.
At a time when NH places 50th in the nation for public education funding, this Governor and his Education Commissioner (who like Betsy Devos had no background in public education) are suggesting we bring in a private education foundation, (who takes 10% of our tax dollars off the top) to help launder money out of our schools and into constitutionally prohibited institutions like private and religious schools. Without this broker/middle man, it would not be legal to take our tax dollars away from public schools. Do people know this scheme is being pushed for our schools?
We even passed a bill saying public schools should start displaying “In God We Trust’ because it is the country’s national motto. Does anyone remember how nationalism/fascism began in 1930’s Germany? Are we the same people who gasped at the idea of religious fundamentalism overtaking people in the middle east? Religious freedom is guaranteed by the US constitution. But how can we be free to choose our religion if the state has already done it for us? This religion-based nationalism is not godly. It’s exactly what it has always been – a tool of control/persecution. My religious beliefs are a protected freedom. This overreach is ignorant of the founding principles and their origins.
The bills to defund schools move us away from public education for all and toward a class system whereby you get what you pay for – and only for those who can pay. Although we may think that something this drastic cannot happen here, we’re seeing a hellish conversion of privatization forces who simply do not want to pay for public education for our children and Free Staters who are also looking to stop paying for public education. We are seeing a Governor and a Commissioner of Education who have somehow skirted responsibility for their constant undermining of New Hampshire’s schools. They use national framing, calling it School Choice, but the reality is, they are breaking a system that has functioned well, with no regard for where New Hampshire lands when they are done.
The Governor has also proposed a merger of the community college and university systems, and he’s insisting it be done just like his department of energy, immediately and as part of the budget rider bill, so no one who might help with a successful transition, has any input. On the face, a merger could help struggling community colleges who were becoming less solvent with time. On the other hand, the lack of state funding that put them in that position will then be extended to the more viable public university system. If we had an honest process coming up with the recommendations, I’d feel better about the Governor giving these major changes the bum’s rush. But all indications are that Governor Sununu is OK with eliminating even more dollars from our dubious last place in higher education funding, and this merger makes it all the easier to squeeze our public education institutions even further. Is New Hampshire OK with defunding our schools?
All knowledgeable House finance predictions are that we will not feel the aftermath of the governor’s current budget decisions on our educational institutions until 2023. His party is touting a one-time, 100 million dollar forgiveness of SWEPT (Statewide Education Property Tax) in 2023 that they say will bring local property tax relief. This is in response to the property tax relief (that didn’t need to be paid back) that Democrats put into our budget for the 2020/2021 budget. The Republican budget writers forget to mention that their cut will be made up from other general funds and in the first year of the next Governor’s term, the Education Trust Fund (funded by SWEPT) will start out with a gaping hole that taxpayers will have to fill. I really take exception to the game Sununu and GOP members of the House/Senate play with taxes. They dig us into a financial hole without regard for the benefits of consistency and fiscal management. They lied to voters about Democrats raising an income tax, when they were referring to our proposal for 12 weeks of Paid Family Medical Leave, for all workers; it was technically a payroll deduction, like Workers Comp Insurance, but it went to the worker to create security when illness hits, not the state. There is no such thing as a free lunch, but Democrats are trying to improve the stability of workers at a time when benefits and wages are at all time lows for the vast majority. The GOP response is: no response.
Finally, let’s talk about the budget. The Governor wanted tax cuts everywhere, but reality meant his initial budget could only deliver on Rooms & Meals and BET (Business Enterprise tax) cuts. His budget person tried to deliver on cuts while still keeping the lights on. But House Finance folks, lead by some aggressive free staters, decided to take the irresponsible route of cutting all revenue sources whether the long-term interests of the state could afford it or not. We already talked about the SWEPT/Education Trust Fund, R&M, & BET; to that they added cuts to the Business Profits Tax & Dividend & Income tax, which they plan to do away with altogether over 5 years. Other than licenses, gaming and sin taxes, these are all the prime revenue streams that fund the state. These are the kinds of ill-considered cuts that put schools and towns out of business if we keep electing anti-government leaders to run the show.
Sununu’s budget asked for a reduction of 88 heads from the Department of Health and Human Services and although that seemed like a lot, the House Finance Committee chairs decided to cut an additional 244 jobs, without any analysis. A total of 332 DHHS jobs cut, over the objections of Commissioner Shibonette, who made the Governor look so good during the COVID19 crisis. Chairman Jesse Edwards told the shocked DHHS Commissioner during a hearing where she said she couldn’t meet those cuts that he never met an army officer who agreed to fewer men. I’m sure she was comforted to hear his musings. But, this is no way to manage state government.
Some of the strange bills you may not hear about
We’re seeing ideological takes on dismantling how NH towns do local control. CACR9 prevented local municipalities from raising taxes above 2% but did not have a 60% majority and was killed on the House floor; CACR1 prohibiting an income tax failed. CACR2 prohibiting any broad-based sales tax – also failed. Perhaps I’m being old fashioned, but there is a rule that Legislatures should pass no law that binds future legislatures expressly because when you hold the power of purse you’re supposed to understand that you cannot predict the future. I take my responsibility seriously and I see these foolhardy antics as designed to weaken NH (a free stater’s dream).
HB67 passed, taking away the ability of citizens to amend petitioned warrant articles at Town Meeting, a right we’ve had since 1875. HB243 amended municipal budget law to conflict with other RSA’s (another poorly done effort) passed 189/186. HB374 forces SB2 to be available as a ballot question, without passing a vote at town meeting. Bi-passing the discussion and promoting an uninformed vote. HB439 was tabled because it removed the power of city councils and town selectmen to enact bylaws and regulations for the well-being of those they serve (their job). HB484 prohibits municipal budget committees from making recommendations on non-monetary warrant articles. HB206 forced collective bargaining negotiations into the public, which all involved testified would break successful discussions (it failed 189/167). HB232 relative to ending nonpublic sessions for real estate negotiations – this passed 183/164. Again, testimony indicated this was not a good change for local governments or control, but it passed on a partisan vote.
HB440 sold as ‘religious liberty’ this bill could be used to make a legal argument against healthy practices imposed by governing bodies – like social distancing and a mask mandate during a pandemic. It passed even though it changes precedent in a way that is negative for local control 192/178. HB566 on sealing records in nonpublic session (makes the whole process more cumbersome) passed with amendment. HR9 passed stating NH supports the principles of federalism. This muddies the legal water for State and Federal powers. HB224 allows after-market tinting of windows on drivers and passengers side windows – police safety issue. Passed on a partisan vote : 200/167. There is a wonderful roundup of the session on the NH Municipal Association website here: https://www.nhmunicipal.org/legislative-bulletin/2021-nhma-legislative-bulletin-15
There are so many other imprudent (nicest word I could come up with) bills that give those who are looking to upset local control and assault those in charge of schools, police, municipalities and even the corner office by giving themselves more tools to put sand in the gears of how we govern. Voters are going to have to understand that this is not about support for the red team or the blue team. Even Republican members of House are finding themselves bullied if they dare to put their constituents above the crazy priorities coming from the anti-government insurgents (Free Staters) in the NH House.
No one likes taxes. But, that is how we pay for things. Anyone who pretends we can vote them all away and not have anarchy is selling…. anarchy.