CONCORD, N.H. — The state budget is one step closer to becoming law, after the New Hampshire House voted to approve the version of the budget the Senate passed Wednesday.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, called the 326 to 53 vote historic. “I believe we kind of just made history,” he told lawmakers after the Thursday vote. “When we passed a budget on a voice vote and we just passed this budget with probably the highest numbers we’ve ever seen.”
Governor Chris Sununu issued a statement shortly after the vote, praising the “budget victory.” He said it was the first time in modern history the House agreed with the Senate’s budget, without requiring additional negotiating.
“This budget is a win for kids, families, taxpayers, state employees, and the entire state of New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “The budget includes the largest pay raise for our state employees in decades, increased investments into our rainy day fund and education trust fund, and sends back historic relief to municipalities to lower property taxes — all while cutting taxes.”
With such a deeply divided House that outcome was hardly a guarantee.
“Many of you know, I’m a betting person,” Senator Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat told lawmakers Wednesday. “I love to gamble, and although I didn’t have money on it, I was betting against the House even being able to send over budget, with numbers that close.”
Both House Democrats and Republicans praised the Senate’s $15 billion budget they ended up voting for, which they said built on the House’s work by adding measures like additional funding for housing, childcare, and family resource centers.
Some Republicans argued they needed more time to review the Senate’s changes, but a motion to table the budget was defeated 334 to 44.
“We can nitpick this for hours, but let’s face it, the Senate based their budget on the hard work of the House budget, and the majority of what is in the Senate budget is what we can all be supportive of — something that both parties can promote as a win for the state of New Hampshire,” said Rep. Laurie Sanborn, a Bedford Republican.
At least one major sticking point was left unresolved for now. The House restored retirement benefits for about 1,800 state employees including state troopers, local law enforcement, and firefighters, but the Senate eliminated the measure from its budget.
Those benefits were taken away from first responders in 2011 because of cost concerns, but first responders now say this is why the state is struggling with recruitment and retention.
“Prior to 2011 New Hampshire was competitive in the New England and regional labor market. Today we’re dead last,” said Rep. Stephen Pearson, a Derry Republican, who has also worked as a lieutenant with the Manchester Fire Department.
Staffing issues among corrections officers has become such a serious issue that the Governor had to deploy the National Guard to staff the men’s prison in Concord in March. The vacancy rate for corrections officers was about 34 percent and it was even higher for entry level positions. Union representatives said it’s impossible to retain workers because retirement packages are better in the neighboring states.
And the budget also contained a campaign finance measure that was a red flag for some voting rights advocates, lifting what had been a $30,000 cap for transferring funds from a candidate, candidate committee, or political action committee. It does not change how much individuals can contribute to a political campaign.
“This amendment allows corporations and national partisan donors undue influence in our elections, drowning out the voices of everyday Granite Staters who know best our local policy priorities,” said Olivia Zink, the executive director of Open Democracy.
The amendment was introduced by the Senate Finance committee and put forward by Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, and Soucy.
Zink said it was problematic to add the measure to the budget as opposed to a stand-alone bill, which would have been subject to more public scrutiny.
The ACLU of NH praised the budget for reducing funding to a new men’s prison and providing advance notice of immigration checkpoints. But policy director Frank Knaack condemned the inclusion of $1.4 million for additional border patrol.
“It is unacceptable that our lawmakers have passed a $1.4 million proposal in the budget to increase policing and surveillance near the northern border, and did so despite having no data to support the claims that people are crossing the border without authorization,” he said in a statement. “Worse, policies like this have been shown in study after study to actually make our communities less safe.”
Lawmakers from the Senate congratulated the House on its vote.
“Every one of you should take a bow today,” said Senate President Bradley. “Awesome job.”
Senator Finance Committee chairman James Gray, a Rochester Republican, said the budget success was a collaborative effort. “We got the job done, and it’s good for the state of New Hampshire,” he said.