State Legislature gets down to business for 2017
CONCORD - It will be a week of pomp and circumstance at the State House, but some business will get done.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives will convene for the 2017 session today at 10 a.m. and then go into joint session with the Senate to hear the vote totals for governor and Executive Council from the Secretary of State.
On Thursday, the House will assemble at 11 a.m. to meet jointly with the Senate for the inauguration of Gov.-elect Chris Sununu, who will then meet with the Executive Council for the first time as governor.
But there is work facing lawmakers as they reconvene, specifically approving a rules change that eliminates the Children and Family Law Committee in the House at a time when children and family law will occupy much of the upcoming session.
"The substantive part of the day will be the final adoption of the House rules," said Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper.
Jasper thought he had Democratic support in pushing for the elimination of the committee, proposed by the House Rules Committee.
Jasper said it had become a venue for various representatives to take up personal grudges with the state's social service agencies over child custody and abuse cases.
The elimination of the committee is expected to pass in the Republican-dominated House.
"The only opposition I have heard is from the Democratic caucus, even though I have had conversations with members of the Democratic caucus, including the Democratic leadership," said Jasper. "It wasn't something I did in a vacuum, so I am a little bit surprised by the pushback."
Several Democratic lawmakers have criticized the elimination of the committee at a time when the state is grappling with how to improve child protective services in the wake of two highly publicized deaths from child abuse.
A special committee of House and Senate members is expected to be named to deal with the overhaul of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, as recommended in a year-long study by an outside agency.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, serving as acting governor until Thursday, said the House and Senate are united on the need for reform at DCYF in the year ahead.
"I can assure you, there is no doubt the Senate and House are in lockstep agreement that we will fix the problems in DCYF," Morse said from his third-floor office at the State House.
Overspending a concern
The work on a new state budget begins as Morse and Jasper expressed concerns about overspending in the Department of Health and Human Services, the state's largest agency, of which DCYF is a part.
According to Morse, if nothing changes, DHHS is on track to overspend its budget by $50 million and will fail to return $20 million that was anticipated to be unspent by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. That could blow a $70 million hole in what was supposed to be a large state budget surplus when the books are finally closed.
"I think $70 million is a major concern," said Morse.
"We have six months of the budget to go," he said. "They haven't gone over yet, but with the current trajectory, they will be over if nothing is done, so we have to find a solution here. It's now in the new governor's hands."
Morse said dealing with overspending in the current budget, and developing a new two-year spending plan, will occupy much of the legislative session.
"We will continue to build a budget that lives within our means," he said. "We now have challenges in 2017 on that, so we'll deal with those. We certainly want to make sure we create an economy in New Hampshire that can help us keep the people here who are graduating. Building that workforce is going to be important."
Jasper said he was looking forward to working with the new governor and a more unified Republican caucus.
"My hope is the same as it always is," he said regarding the upcoming session. "That we find solutions to problems in the state and we work together to do the best we can for the people of the state, even though this budget has become much more challenging with the revelations about issues in Health and Human Services that we've learned about in the last couple of weeks."