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House fails to pass budget for the first time in decades

State House Bureau

April 06. 2017 12:44PM
House Speaker Shawn Jasper, second from right, takes questions during a press conference in his office following yesterday's failure to pass a state budget. Also pictured are Sherm Packard, speaker pro tem, left, Gene Chandler, deputy speaker, right, and Dick Hinch, majority leader. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — For the first time in modern memory the House has failed to pass a state budget, effectively removing the 400 legislators from the process for now and erasing the work of their Finance Committee over the past several months.

The budget developed by Gov. Chris Sununu will now go directly for consideration by the Senate, with none of the House changes on the table when the House and Senate meet in conference in June.

The House's version of the budget was $11.9 Billion. 

House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, said this is the first time since records started being kept in the 1960s that the House failed to adopt the budget proposed by its Finance Committee.

He was clearly frustrated by the ability of 32 Republican holdouts to defeat a budget proposal Thursday, which had limited Democratic support.

"A large faction of this group only focuses on the fact that government should be much smaller than it is, regardless of the consequences that has on their fellow man," he said to a roomful of reporters.

Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, a leader of the newly formed Freedom Caucus, said there were opportunities to compromise had the leadership been willing to support additional cuts in spending.

"Those who believe in limiting the growth of government can and do make a difference by getting elected up here," he said, "and a 10-and-a-half percent increase in spending is not acceptable to those who sent us here."

Members of the Freedom Caucus wanted growth in state spending held closer to the rate of inflation, somewhere between 3 and 4.5 percent, which Jasper described as an arbitrary number.

The budget will eventually come back to the House after the Senate version of a revenue and spending bill clears a Senate-House committee of conference in June.

Will House leadership be able to muster the votes to pass a budget by then? All that Jasper would say on Thursday was, "Stay tuned."

Democratic support

The House session on Thursday started with an attempt to pass HB 2, the so-called "rider" to the budget bill, containing the language necessary to implement the dollar amounts in the budget, HB 1.

Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham urged her fellow Democrats to join with the majority of Republicans in approving HB 2, even though she voted against it in committee, and said the bill is "far from perfect."

"I see what has happened in other legislative bodies across the country and in Washington, D.C., and I never want to be part of that," she said. "I never want to be part of a body that says, ‘Let’s tear the institution apart; let the institution fail; let the institution not move forward.’"

But the majority of Democrats, unhappy with the level of funding for drug and alcohol abuse, the absence of full-day kindergarten and changes in benefits for retired state employees (among other things), voted "no."

HB 2 was defeated 177-169 in the closest vote of the two-day budget debate.

House budget irrelevant

Having failed to obtain a majority vote for the line-item budget (HB 1) or the accompanying narrative (HB 2), Jasper entertained a motion to adjourn. The House version of the budget became irrelevant after months of work by lawmakers and legislative staffers.

There was finger-pointing in all directions, as both Democrats and Freedom Caucus members said their attempts at compromise were rejected, while Jasper and his leadership team said no one made any viable counter-offers.

Freedom Caucus leaders wanted up to $200 million in additional cuts, Jasper said, but offered no specific recommendations except to eliminate a plan to send $50 million to cities and towns over the next two years for property-tax relief.

"The only consistent message from these 32 people is they didn’t want money going back to cities, towns and school districts because they do not trust our local officials to make the right decisions with that money," said Jasper.

Regarding the Democrats, Jasper said, "They didn’t come in with anything they specifically wanted. They talked about kindergarten, which we have already agreed with the governor and Senate would be dealt with in a separate bill."

Senate takes over

Senate leaders announced they would get to work immediately to keep the process moving.

Since all spending bills have to originate in the House, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, will offer amendments to two House bills now before the Senate.

They will serve as the vehicles for the Senate versions of HB 1 and HB 2, using the governor’s budget as the starting point.

"We believe the governor’s budget is a strong foundation from which to start and we look forward to working with both the House and governor as the Senate’s budget phase begins," said Morse. "We’re confident that we will have a budget that lives within our means, protects taxpayers and is good for the state of New Hampshire."

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