New Hampshire lawmakers will try to move beyond an unprecedented 2020 and start plowing through nearly 900 bills facing them in 2021.
Gov. Chris Sununu and the newly-in-charge Republican legislative leaders want lawmakers to narrow their focus to top priorities and lower their expectations as the State House, along with the entire state, limps through the pandemic.
“I have been telling all my colleagues, the mantra for 2021 is that less is more,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.
“Let’s do the things that are most important this year and leave the rest for another day.”
The printed copies of the bills are a few weeks from coming out, but the top four topics, in order, are taxes, COVID-19 and the state of emergency, education and voting/election laws.
Sununu has stressed that his No. 1 job is to craft the next two-year state budget, which will deal with the aftermath of the economic fallout that came from the coronavirus.
Only four months ago, Sununu was projecting a budget deficit of $500 million to $700 million.
State revenues have since recovered, powered by a booming real estate market and robust business from “box stores” and home improvement centers, putting the latest estimate of what the deficit will look like by July 1 at well under $100 million.
“We’re in a lot better shape than we had thought possible,” Sununu said recently. “We’re in many ways the envy of the Northeast.”
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, was one of the main architects of the current budget the Democratic-run Legislature wrote in September 2019.
The plan increased spending by nearly $1 billion, including a record $300 million increase in state aid to school districts and local communities.
Democrats on defense
D’Allesandro, in his 12th term, the longest-serving senator, is outnumbered, 5-2 on the Senate Finance Committee. His job now is to play defense.
“It was one of the better budgets I have ever been involved in when it comes to taking care of the needs of people,” D’Allesandro said.
“They are going to be about making cuts and I’m bracing for quite a battle,” he said.
Bradley said Senate Republicans won’t dismantle everything. They just want to “right-size” the next spending plan.
“Mental health, substance abuse, DCYF and child protection, we made some real progress in that budget and we shouldn’t take it all apart,” Bradley said. “We are just going to have to make tough decisions.”
In turn, Republican leaders are eager to cut state taxes two years after Democrats canceled tax cuts.
Last Friday, the state’s two main business taxes on corporate profits and business activity were supposed to be cut, the third reduction resulting from GOP actions in 2018.
A year later, Democrats forced Sununu to agree to a budget deal that did away with those tax cuts by creating a trigger for state revenue growth they knew would not be reached.
One of the more than 50 tax bills to be considered would reinstate those cuts.
Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, said a fervor for tax cuts is strong among the narrow 212-187 majority in the House.
“You have a House majority that is absolutely demanding a tax reduction,” Moore said.
That’s not the only tax cut among the more than 50 bills on the topic.
Rep. Norman Silber, R-Gilford, is proposing eliminating New Hampshire’s “income tax” — a 5% tax on interest and dividends — over a five-year period.
Repealing ‘income tax’
Grover Norquist, national director of Americans for Tax Reform, has gotten aboard this effort as part of his group’s campaign to have all 50 states repeal their income taxes by 2050.
“It’s a hit of a little over $100 million, but over five years that could be manageable,” AFP’s Moore said.
“During the pandemic, the governors of New York and New Jersey have been begging their high net-worth people not to leave the state. We have a legislative vehicle right here to put them on that plane to New Hampshire.”
Sununu is lobbying for a cut in the state’s 9% percent tax on restaurant meals and hotel room rentals to help a battered hospitality industry.
“This could give them a real shot in the arm we know they need,” Sununu said.
D’Allesandro warned this tax cut mania could wind up dismantling essential services.
“There is a thread of hypocrisy in all this. We have to deeply cut the budget so we can cut more taxes and that’s going to make New Hampshire stronger? I don’t think so,” D’Allesandro said.
Unlike this partisan tax and spending fight, there could be bipartisan support for making the Legislature an equal player in future emergencies.
Legislative Democratic leaders tried without success to strip Sununu of his executive authority over COVID-19 response spending.
The House GOP caucus includes many who charge that Sununu unconstitutionally became a supreme executive as soon as the coronavirus showed up in the Granite State last March.
Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, has authored or signed onto seven of these bills.
“We need to break that culture, because the Legislature abdicating all authority is antithetical to our constitutional form of government,” Prout told the House Rules Committee.
Acting Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, said giving the Legislature its own power to declare an emergency goes too far, but he’s open to something less than that.
“If you come back further with some clarity and make it a little bit tighter, then a lot of us might go along with it.It’s a little bit too broad right now,” Packard told Prout, who agreed to withdraw that idea.
Bradley urged lawmakers not to act rashly.
“My hope is that we don’t rush to judgement on things that would restrict a governor’s emergency powers because some people don’t like this or some people don’t like that,’ he said.
The education debate
Education spending legislative debates will take many forms.
Democratic lawmakers want to make permanent the temporary increases in state aid to education.
Members on the bipartisan Education Funding Commission have come up with an outline for altering the existing aid formula to provide more support for children with impairments and those who come from low-income or English as a second language homes.
Sununu is at the front of the push for “education freedom accounts,” which will enable parents to take part of that per-pupil state education grant and use it to send their children to alternative public or private schools.
Packard wants that named in memory of late House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, a champion for the reform who died last month after coming down with COVID-19.
“You can sum all this up with: It’s got to be about outcomes for the kids, not outcomes for the system,” Sununu said during a forum the free-market Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy sponsored last month.
“We have to stop worrying about the system as much as the kid. We have great public schools here. But there are one, two, three, four percent of the population where it’s not ideal, and giving them that opportunity is huge.”
D’Allesandro said these individual accounts would starve the public school system.
“If we diminish a public education we have diminished the quality of this society,” D’Allesandro said.
2020 election sparks raft of bills
Unsurprisingly, election law proposals running the gamut have come flooding in after a contentious election year.
For 2020 only, all voters were permitted to cast absentee ballots if they were concerned about their health because of COVID-19.
At least 13 bills have been filed on this topic, with Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, seeking to let anyone vote by absentee ballot in the future.
Bradley said New Hampshire had a transparent clean election, but the work should continue to ensure only residents get to cast a ballot.
“The whole debate about residency and domicile needs to go forward,” Bradley said.
“If you are not a resident in New Hampshire, you need to become one in short order in order to vote here, and I think the overwhelming majority of our citizens agree with that statement.”
Redistricting also will be featured prominently for part of the session.
The all-Republican power structure gets to draw voting district maps more to their liking.
Sununu, Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse fervently hope the plan can be fashioned in a way that keeps it from ending up in the Supreme Court, as it did in 2001 and 2011.
Right-to-work odds improve
Right-to-work will receive a renewed push this session. A New Hampshire Union Leader report found that 11 interconnected political action committees gave nearly $100,000 to 10 GOP Senate hopefuls, eight of whom won.
Several times in the past decade, the House has narrowly killed this bid to make it against the law to require any employee to pay dues or join a union to keep a job.
This will be the first debate since the landmark Supreme Court decision know as Janus, which struck down union financial mandates in the public sector.
Lawmakers gave Morse and Packard broad powers to combine bills and public hearings to heighten efficiency in a year when much of the activity could be remote.
But D’Allesandro and Bradley agreed there remains a tense wariness about what legislating, 2021-style, will be like as New Hampshire residents wait for wide access to the vaccine.“I think the House is going to be crazy with all their factions in both parties. If anything happens of a positive nature, I think it will happen in the Senate,” D’Allesandro summed up.
“But if you are thinking clearly, you have to be very concerned about the unknown.”