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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Freedom Caucus cries foul over 'shell game'

September 02. 2017 9:23PM

WHEN THE FATE of the state's $11.7 billion two-year budget was being debated in House in late June, Democratic Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham pointed out that anywhere from $250 million to $300 million in anticipated spending did not appear in the budget, but would be distributed over ensuing months at the discretion of the powerful House-Senate Fiscal Committee, comprised of five members from each chamber.

"If you are supporting this budget because the bottom line seems lower, I wish you well, but I want you to know ... You've been snookered," she said.

We were reminded of her warning this week, as the far-right New Hampshire House Freedom Caucus criticized the Fiscal Committee for adding $93 million in off-budget spending for the Department of Health and Human Services at the first meeting of the new budget cycle last Friday.

"Taxpayers deserve the right to know how the state is spending our money. However, the Fiscal Committee bypassed the budget process to spend $93 million without a single word of public input," said Rep. Josh Moore, R-Merrimack. "This shows a disturbing lack of transparency that undermines the credibility of government."

The Freedom Caucus fought the House budget, but in the end most of its 30-40 members got in line and voted for the revenue and spending plan with other members of the Republican Caucus. Only 14 Republicans voted against.

One of those "no" votes, Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, acknowledges that the Fiscal Committee has historically approved the spending of unexpected revenue, but the appropriation authorized last Friday came mostly from anticipated federal sources.

"The Fiscal Committee is empowered to do this," he said, "but using the Fiscal Committee to play games is unacceptable."

In his request for the funding, DHHS Commissioner Jeffery Meyers noted that the line items at issue, including $70 million for the Medicaid to Schools program, had traditionally been budgeted and were included in the agency budget and the governor's budget.

The funding was taken out in both the House and Senate phases with the expectation that the department would request the reinstatement of funding from the Fiscal Committee, Meyers wrote.

Hoell characterized it as a shell game.

"No one is talking about the fact that this is the nonsense that goes on and needs to be brought out," he said. "Some of us voted against the budget, purely on the fact that this was a dishonest trick to hide $219 million. That's my frustration."

Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, chair of the Fiscal Committee, says the practice has been commonplace for at least the past 20 years. "With the exception of this year, the House has always put all federal funds in the budget and the Senate in conference committee has insisted they be removed to keep the total of the budget lower than it might otherwise be," he said.

Breaking the habit would be politically challenging.

"If you try to do a fair comparison from one budget to another, you have to exclude that amount, otherwise you are bumping up the budget and it looks to be much bigger than past budgets," said Kurk. "This is a practice the Legislature has been doing for decades. This is nothing new."

Senate President Chuck Morse said no one is trying to hide anything.

"We had these discussions with everyone," he said, "conservative or liberal, House and Senate. Everyone was aware of what was happening. It was an open debate."

No second thoughts

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut says he has no apologies about his aggressive speaking schedule on the political circuit, and plans to continue, after Democratic Executive Councilors Andru Volinsky and Chris Pappas took him to task in an opinion piece published Thursday in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

They cited, among other things, his July keynote at the annual fundraising dinner for the N.H. Liberty Alliance, and his upcoming gig as featured speaker for the Right-of-Center coalition at a conference hosted by former Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien.

"I have attended and spoken at many events across our great state, sponsored by groups from across the political spectrum," said the former gubernatorial candidate who narrowly lost his GOP primary bid to Sununu.

"The purpose of my attendance at the Right-of-Center meeting is to speak about my work to advance excellent educational opportunities for all New Hampshire students. This is the job I focus on every day."

To make his point, Edelblut shared the text of his keynote at the N.H. Liberty Alliance's Liberty Dinner on July 16, where the topic was "school choice."

The speech focused on ideas versus ideology.

"Almost every day, I have the privilege of working with passionate individuals. I share very little ideology with many of these people. But, I do not come to the engagement simply with ideology. I come with ideas," he said. "Let us become a force that overwhelms our culture with ideas, not ideology."

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