Emergency Powers Dispute Threatens Budget Deal
Kevin Landrigan, Union Leader

CONCORD — The governor’s powers in dealing with future emergencies has emerged as a key stumbling block to getting a trailer bill to the two-year state budget (HB 2).

During a second day of negotiations, House and Senate budget writers forged agreements on several thorny issues, including the hiring of more child protection workers, banning discriminatory teaching at education or in work and making new businesses eligible for future COVID-19 grants.

But Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, spoke out about the ongoing dispute about competing versions of a second bill (HB 417) to change the process for dealing with states of emergency.

Morse said he wanted to put the emergency language compromise into this budget bill, but vowed to oppose any amendment that lacks the support of Gov. Chris Sununu.

“I will not put tomorrow into the budget something the governor will not accept,” Morse said at the close of the budget talks Tuesday.

The seven-person conference committee dealing with the emergency powers bill is set to meet Wednesday at noon, an hour before the budget negotiators are to return.

“They are now facing two amendments, one that is acceptable to the governor, and one that is not acceptable,” Morse said.

All conference committees have to complete their work and file a compromise report by Thursday at 4 p.m.

The House-passed bill would end future emergencies after 30 days unless both branches of the Legislature voted to renew it.

Existing state law permits the Legislature to terminate a state of emergency.

The Senate-passed version instead would continue to allow the governor to extend a state of emergency but allow lawmakers to terminate any executive order issued by the governor.

Sununu has supported an amendment offered at a Monday meeting of the emergency powers committee that would lengthen the state of emergency in the future from 21 to 45 days.

Caucus livid at Sununu-backed idea

Leaders of the fiscally-conservative House Freedom Caucus protested that amendment and vowed to fight its passage.

“When the citizens elected us in November of 2020, they expected meaningful reform to the state of emergency statutes that impacted Manchester businesses so severely,” said Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester. “Increasing the time that the executive branch has complete control of the state not only breaks the promises that we made when we ran for office, it actually harms the citizens that we work for.”

House and Senate budget conferees also agreed on the outline to close the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester by March 2023. The members will take a formal vote on the language Wednesday.

They also endorsed language to require all family planning providers to prove that they “separate physically and financially” their reproductive services such as cancer screenings from their abortion clinics.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said the concept is similar to the so-called Hyde Amendment that outlaws the use of federal money to pay for abortions.

But Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said it would subject these programs to expensive and intrusive audits.

“Nowhere else in New Hampshire statute does the state hold patients and medical providers hostage pending financial audits,” Rosenwald said.

House leaders backed down on their own plan, and agreed to a Senate proposal that would ban the teaching of discrimination.

Sununu has embraced the proposal, while civil libertarians and leaders of some human service agencies charge it’s an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

Another unresolved issue is whether the budget will include a dental benefit for adults on the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people, seniors and the disabled.

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said the Senate earmarked $1.6 million for the benefit, but he said estimates are it will cost $7-$11 million to provide for 77,500 clients.

“We think it’s a good benefit, but committing somebody to paying $11 million when you haven’t dug in on the details, that’s very difficult,” Edwards said.