New budget sends NH in new direction  

More than two thousand demonstrators rally on the plaza and lawn in front of New Hampshire's Statehouse Thursday, March 31, 2011 to protest proposed spending cuts and a provision that would strip public employees of their union protection when their contracts expire, in Concord, N.H.

The old Roger Miller song from the 1960s says “England swings like a pendulum do.”

Miller is no longer with us, but maybe some songwriter will find inspiration and pen a tune with lyrics that go “New Hampshire swings like a pendulum do.”

Miller may have meant “swings” a little differently, but there is ample evidence New Hampshire is in flux.

Just look at the last election, with the exception of governor, four of the five top spots on the ballot were won by Democrats.

Yet in the races below the Congressional seats, Republicans won majorities in the Executive Council, Senate and House, flipping every one from Democratic control.

That is the epitome of mixed messages.

None of the five top races were particularly close, ranging from Gov. Chris Sununu’s 252,000-vote margin over Dan Feltes to Chris Pappas’s 20,000-vote victory over Matt Moyers.

So are the majority of New Hampshire residents saying “We want Democrats in Washington, but we want Republicans in the State House?”

Or is it something else, which I suspect it is?

Instead, it may have something to do with the candidates, their likability, their marketing and their sense of purpose, but who is to say.

For two years, Democrats controlled the Executive Council, the Senate and the House, the House and Senate by decent margins and the council 3-2 which is the best Democrats could ever hope for in the five gerrymandered districts.

No Republican is ever going to win District 2, but Republicans are competitive in the other four districts. No Democrat is going to win District 3, and they are only marginally competitive in two other districts.

For the last three terms the political divide in the Senate has been 14-10, with Republicans controlling the Upper Chamber by that margin twice, and Democrats once.

The divide in the House after the 2020 election is the closest it has been in a long time with a 12-Rep majority.

Two years ago, Democrats had a 16-Rep. majority.

Despite the Democrats’ larger majority last term, they were unable to accomplish many of their priorities running into two buzzsaws, Sununu’s record-setting vetoes and the coronavirus pandemic that threw everything into turmoil in the second year.

This year the pandemic continued to keep the State House complex closed until two weeks ago, but the House and Senate were able to overcome the challenges.

With the 2021 session nearly in the rearview mirror, and despite the pandemic that claimed the life of House Speaker Dick Hinch before a single legislative session was held, Republicans managed to achieve many of social conservatives’ top issues and even more at times.

What Republicans did was 180 degrees from what Democrats tried to do in the last term but were unable to accomplish.

The Republican controlled legislature in 2021 significantly changed the direction of the state and you could say its traditional philosophy.

New Hampshire has traditionally had a laissez faire attitude, particularly on social issues. New Hampshire was the first state to legislatively approve gay marriage, for example, and for years fought many attempts to limit access to abortions, and often fiercely opposed attempts by politicians to insert legislative influence into the higher education systems.

New Hampshire has been a fiscally conservative state with a moderate approach or even libertarian in its approach to social issues.

When New Hampshire decided, with the help of the courts, to decentralize its mental health and developmentally disabled services into community-based systems well ahead of much of the nation, it was fiscally astute as well.

Over the years, much of the innovation in both systems has fallen by the wayside as budgetary concerns took center stage.

The state’s fiscal direction became more conservative over time and slowly the libertarian attitude weakened as the culture wars began to take root.

But the depth of the change in the state’s traditional attitudes signaled by the $13.5 billion budget passed Thursday with almost exclusively Republican votes is staggering.

The budget itself is not that far from what you would expect from a Republican controlled legislature with its tax cuts, reduction in spending on public education, capping Health and Human Service Employees at 3,000 and refusing to fund a dental benefit for adults on the Medicaid program.

What makes the budget unique is what is contained in House Bill 2 that has little to nothing to do with the actual dollar and cents numbers.

There are any number of controversial provisions including the divisive concepts section that is not quite the prohibition on teaching controversial racial or sexual concepts as the original but certainly would prohibit critical race theory in public schools and universities.

Then there is the 24-week abortion ban, that requires any woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound, a procedure that costs about $1,200 along with the invasion of a woman’s privacy that the mandate is.

And doctors who perform abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy could face criminal charges.

That is not laissez faire in any sense of the word.

It is no longer live and let live, it is live the way I tell you to.

The budget trailer bill also contains what has been called the most expansive voucher program in the country allowing public tax dollars to be used for tuition to private and religious schools, home schooling or alternative education programs.

The use of public dollars for religious schools has traditionally been off limits in New Hampshire until a business tax credit scholarship program was instituted several years ago, but this would take the concept considerably further.

What could be considered budget related is a provision requiring abortion service providers to physically and financially separate those services from other medical care they offer.

An audit would be done annually to ensure state money is not co-mingled with funds used to pay for abortion services or the provider would be suspended and not allowed to continue until the separation is made.

Other bills passed this year would have the state bypass any federal voting regulations, would consider churches essential services during a state of emergency and numerous changes to public school systems.

The lawmakers expanded the stand your ground statute, allowed loaded guns on recreational vehicles, reined in the governor’s authority during a state of emergency and the Health and Human Services commissioner’s ability to determine what vaccines children need before enrolling in school.

The list goes on, but you have to say this has been the most successful year the state’s ultraconservative lawmakers have had in some time.

Which is impressive when you realize only about one-fifth of the legislature is controlling the agenda.

Many of the people behind these changes are members of the Free State Project, which has long touted it does not take a majority of a state’s residence to affect major changes.

One of the Free Staters driving the change is House Majority Leader Jason Osborne of Auburn.

“This is a transformational symphony of reform,” said Osborne, “that will rocket our state into the future,” after the budget passed last week.

And it might be, but this amount of change invites transformation in the other direction given the state’s traditional philosophical outlook and history.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the N.H. State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife, Carolyn, in New London.

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