“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is the opening line of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Although it was written about the French Revolution, it could have been written about three days in April for the New Hampshire House.
Another description may be “three days in hell” as the nearly 400-member House works its way through 331 bills in order to meet its already delayed crossover deadline.
Scheduled to meet from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford, the three long days may not be enough time given the contentious issues legislators face.
Wednesday will present a picture of “the best of times,” the state’s $127.55 million, two-year capital budget, House Bill 25, which was approved on an 18-0 vote of the Public Works and Highways Committee, and “the worst of times,” the state’s proposed $13.67 billion, two-year operating budget package, House Bills 1 and 2.
The capital budget is the first bill House members will act on Wednesday and probably one of the easiest because who doesn’t like a little construction in their district and the jobs and good will that creates.
Or course there will be some who believe it has too much pork, and others who are convinced it is not enough, but most will have nothing to say and it should pass by a large margin.
Next up is a bill that would allow charity gaming facilities to offer historic horse racing on a terminal much like a slot machine connected to a system containing thousands of past horse races.
The terminal would be at select current charitable racing facilities throughout the state, but mostly in the southern tier.
Historic racing is projected to produce $5.75 million for the state’s charities, $12.05 million for the Education Trust Fund and $820,000 for the problem gambling fund.
There is a $25 limit on each bet, up from $10 when it was proposed a year ago but failed to win approval.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted 16-5 for the bill.
But long-time expanded gaming advocate Rep. Dick Ames, D-Jaffrey, was one of the opponents and says in his minority report it will change the face of charitable gaming from a person-to-person experience to one centered on racing machines without safeguards to prevent addiction.
“The minority believes that the monetary benefits promised to charities by promoters of this bill are uncertain and insufficient to outweigh its potential for disrupting existing patterns of charitable gaming with no opportunity for local control and its potential for fostering destructive problem gambling,” Ames writes.
Chances are this bill will generate some discussion, but the debate is likely to pale in comparison to the next two bills, House Bills 1 and 2.
The best and worst comparison is hard to avoid when you think back two years and the Democratically controlled House and Senate budget writers were divvying up more than $100 million in surplus funds for schools, opioid treatment and prevention, child care, ending emergency room waiting for mental health services and changing how the state’s business profits tax is apportioned.
This year there are over $100 million in business, rooms and meals, and interest and dividends tax cuts, and almost $80 million in across-the-board cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services in programs and personnel.
The two approaches are 180 degrees apart.
In those two years, the state — as has the rest of the world — been in a pandemic that has killed millions, more than 550,000 in the United States and almost 1,250 in New Hampshire.
The proposed budget includes lots of provisions that will be voted on in separate bills later in the three-day marathon like limiting the governor’s powers to continue a state of emergency, historic racing and prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” related to race or sex or including provisions in contracts or grants.
The two-year budget this year is based on the concept of “living within your means,” but the means have been reduced.
The budget debate is long and contentious at the best of times as those dissatisfied with the proposed product introduce their amendments often numbering into the double digits.
The Republican leadership has to be thinking about the last time the GOP controlled the budget writing process in 2017 when the package failed to pass the House because the Freedom Caucus refused to back it.
This year the NH House Alliance sent a press release backing the two-year budget proposal, but the question remains if that is enough because Democrats will not support the plan, so it will need almost all the Republican votes in their slim 13-member majority.
House Finance Committee Chair Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, was brutally honest last week when he proposed the amendment to limit the governor’s power to declare a state of emergency for only 21 days without legislative approval.
He said his job as chair is to find the votes to pass the budget and they were not there but could be with the amendment.
That provision and others induced Gov. Chris Sununu to say the process “is off the rails,” and he counts on the Senate to fix the problem.
And that is a problem in itself, because if the Senate fixes the problems, will those wavering House members continue to support the budget in June after the conference committee between House and Senate budget writers?
That issue can wait a couple of months but it has to be resolved before June 30 or there may not be a two-year operating budget in place any more than there was two years ago after Sununu vetoed it
The budget will likely pass after much waggling, but there are a lot of contentious issues to decide in the three days in April.
Many bills concerning education, guns, elections and regulations or licensing have close partisan votes coming out of committees.
Some usual bills have committee support that often do not such as constitutional amendments against enacting an income tax or a sales tax.
Another proposed amendment would limit the annual increase in municipal spending to 2 percent, or 1 percent on the disabled and elderly, a statewide budget cap for cities and towns.
Other proposed constitutional amendments backed by House committees would prohibit the legislature from passing laws restricting the right to own, carry, or use firearms or firearm accessories, but another would allow state taxpayer money to be used to support religious schools.
Many of the bills would significantly change state government operations and long-standing policies.
For example, one bill that gained favor would move the state’s primary from September to June, and others would require the purging of checklists after every election, do away with the state voluntary spending limits for elections, and raise candidate contribution reporting limits from $25 to $100.
Bills dealing with education would make it more difficult to hold special school district meetings, would give charter schools first option on closed public school buildings, would allow school districts to contract with religious schools if they do not have a school of their own, and would make passing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test a requirement to graduate from institutions in the university or community college systems.
Several bills change the laws governing the display of a firearm to warn someone, and another would repeal the prohibitions on carrying a loaded firearm on an off-highway-recreational vehicle or snowmobile.
Municipalities would be prohibited from licensing lemonade stands run by anyone under 18 years old and require cities and towns to enforce federal immigration laws and end sanctuary cities.
The outlook is for three long, contentious days in Bedford.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.