Fundamental tensions in Concord

A clash in basic philosophies is playing out this year in the State House

With the New Hampshire Legislature controlled by Democrats and a Republican as governor, events in Concord represent a classic tension between two philosophies of government that have been competing for a long time.

New Hampshire’s public image and assumed philosophy is that of “small government, low taxes and limited programs,” and that sometimes is called a “myth” by those who do not agree with it, and “the New Hampshire advantage,” by those who do.

Those opposed to the system described above point to reduced state aid to public schools, programs created but not funded, costs pushed down to cities and towns rather than being borne by the state government and insufficient funding of our institutions of higher education, resulting in some of the highest tuition rates for public colleges in the nation.

This year these two forces are butting heads. Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget spent the healthy surplus on one-time expenditures for projects at the state and municipal levels and at state institutions, such as the university system and a new mental health facility.

These one-time expenditures are consistent with the philosophy Sununu has and which his father, the first Governor Sununu, expounded. When there is a surplus, they believe, the state should spend it on one-time projects and not on programs that will cause continuing spending obligations that will put the state in a jam when the economy falters and revenues fall.

In passing the House version of the budget, Democrats, on the other hand, imposed a new capital gains tax, canceled scheduled reductions in business taxes and, in their version of paid family leave, added a charge paid from workers’ paychecks. The capital gains tax and the paid family leave charge were immediately branded “income taxes” by opponents, including Sununu.

The money raised by these adjustments to the revenue stream were expended on programs like increasing aid to education and other continuing programs rather than the projects proposed by Sununu.

It will be interesting to see how the Senate deals with the budget, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester having expressed the desire to reach some kind of a compromise that will avoid a veto and a continuing resolution — the ultimate result of the failure to agree and inability to override a veto.

In other fundamental disagreements, the Democrats have passed a number of election-related laws, seeking to undo certain reforms passed by Republicans in the past. They also have proposed a nonpartisan redistricting commission to replace partisan election districts drawn by the Legislature.

Democrats also are not interested in plans that allow aid to private and charter schools, emphasizing the need to fund public schools first.

On social issues, Democrats back proposals that favor recognition of many non-traditional relationships and choice on abortion, where many traditional Republicans do not back some of the changes, and favor “right-to-life” measures, although party identification is less predictable about positions on some social issues than it is on economic and governmental program legislation.

In a rare display of bipartisan action, both the House and Senate voted to repeal the death penalty, apparently by veto-proof margins. However, many traditional Republicans continued to vote not to repeal.

Ultimately, this all points to a fundamental question of whether New Hampshire raises enough money to pay for what we need, and whether incremental changes, such as those occurring this year, or a wholesale review of taxing and spending is a better approach.

How this plays out to a large degree will set the stage for the next elections and a chance for voters to express their opinion on whether the traditional view or the more progressive one carries the day. Also, actually seeing many of these things passed presents a challenge to those who have long advocated change, since they have to consider whether they really like it when it happens.

In the meantime, observers continue to watch if compromise can be achieved, and if it is, whether it will be another example of New Hampshire “muddling through” or whether 2019 is the beginning of some fundamental change.

Time will tell.

On another matter, the untimely death of former securities regulator and gubernatorial candidate Mark Connolly should not go unnoticed. A smart and good man with great integrity, Connolly served the state well and long, and his death left a hole in the conscience of New Hampshire.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He can be reached at bcook@sheehan.com.

Categories: Cook on Concord

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