[Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks we will follow the actions of the new Republican majority in Concord, which has pledged major spending cuts and a reduction in state regulations. As we have said before, we believe some of these changes will further shift costs and responsibilities to our local communities and affect the lake in regard to milfoil control, water safety and environmental protection. We encourage you to engage in the discussion].
Concord — January 14, 2010 — New Hampshire House Republicans laid out a broad agenda yesterday that focuses mostly on fiscal issues but also touches on topics ranging from abortion to charter schools.
Although Republicans faced criticism during the first week of the legislative session for dealing with partisan, nonfiscal issues, House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said Republican leaders will not be distracted from their priorities.
“Despite the hyper-partisan tone of the last week, let there be no mistake,” Bettencourt said. “This is the Republican agenda: More money in your pocket, more investment in our businesses, growing industries, better jobs, education excellence and important long-term reforms.”
That does not mean unrelated bills will be shelved, but only that the Republican leadership will not actively advocate for them. For example, repealing same-sex marriage is not a Republican priority, but Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican who sponsored a bill repealing same-sex marriage, said he still plans to pursue it.
“To say we shouldn’t be focused on marriage is not saying we’re not going to deal with it,” Bates said.
But at least yesterday, more than 50 Republican legislators attended a press conference and appeared united around a set of priorities. At the top: reducing government spending, repealing mandates and regulations, and helping businesses. Republicans will also focus on reforming the retirement and education systems. And they will address “personal rights” issues, including requiring minors to notify a parent before receiving an abortion.
While the details of many proposals must still be fleshed out in legislation, the agenda shows a clear trend toward limiting government. The top priority is cutting state spending.
Asked where Republicans would cut, Bettencourt responded, “anywhere and everywhere. There are no sacred cows this term.”
Republicans would reduce taxes and fees, including businesses taxes. They would scale back regulations – including federal mandates, licensing requirements, insurance mandates and the state’s Shoreland Protection Act. They would privatize some state services, consolidate state agencies and rein in “excessive agency rules.”
The Republican leadership already created special committees to deal with education reform and retirement reform, and Bettencourt stressed the importance of both. While retirees can expect close scrutiny of their benefits packages, the top education issues will be re-examining the school funding formula and promoting a constitutional amendment to allow the state to target aid to needy districts. Bettencourt said proposals would also allow the use of vouchers, limit restrictions on charter schools and protect the rights of home-schoolers.
The final category of priorities – personal rights and social responsibility – strays further from fiscal issues. Priorities include requiring parental notification for abortions, requiring voters to display identification, protecting gun rights and getting people off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and back to work.
But such changes will not be easy. For one, the Legislature faces an estimated $800 million budget shortfall as it crafts the 2012-13 budget, and Republican proposals to cut taxes would increase the shortfall.
Though the Republican agenda includes a commitment not to downshift costs, half of the state budget is aid to cities and towns. House Minority Leader Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, said she worries cuts to state spending would either downshift costs to municipalities or hurt those in need.
“I’m concerned we don’t balance our budget by eliminating services for the most vulnerable or increasing property taxes,” Norelli said.
Similarly, Bettencourt talked about reducing state education costs. But Mark Joyce, executive director of the School Administrators Association, said that could shift the burden for paying for education to cities and towns, increasing local property taxes.
Several of the proposals have been tried before. Bills requiring parental notification or consent for abortions have been defeated 14 times in two decades. A notification bill passed in 2003 and was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the law needed an exemption excusing a girl from the requirement if her health was in danger. Rather than reworking the law, the Legislature repealed it.
Pro-choice groups say requiring parental notification could harm the health and safety of young women – and are already criticizing Republicans for pursuing it.
“We all know that the people of New Hampshire did not vote for an agenda attacking a woman’s right to choose,” said Pilar Olivo, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire.
Similarly, constitutional amendments on education funding have failed before. While Democratic Gov. John Lynch supports an amendment, and has been talking to House and Senate leaders, it remains unclear if the Republicans and Lynch can agree on core issues – including the role of the courts and the restrictions placed on any school funding formula.
And with 400 House members, including nearly 300 Republicans, the leadership cannot control the bills being introduced by members. Bates, asked about same-sex marriage repeal, said there are two or three dozen people on the budget-related committees – but that does not mean legislators on nonbudgetary committees cannot work on other topics.
“Every piece of legislation is important to someone, and we need to give each one their due hearing,” Bates said.
Distractions from fiscal matters were obvious the past two weeks, when Republican leaders focused on lifting a ban on guns in the State House and trying to oust Manchester Democratic Rep. Mike Brunelle. One Republican lawmaker was accused of making anti-Semitic comments, while a freshman representative was arrested on charges that he stole his personnel file from a former employer.
But several Republican lawmakers said they anticipate Republicans will unite around core principles.
“We realize the people of New Hampshire are concerned about the budget deficit, taxes, pensions,” said Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican. “That’s why we won. I hope we’re smart enough to realize that.”