If the past few years have taught me anything, it is that the foundations of our democracy have sadly become more and more often seen as obstacles that need to be ignored, or worse, discarded for the sake of temporary political wins.
As a government and history teacher, it has become difficult to explain the mechanics of government when political chaos seems to be the goal of too many voters and politicians. For years, I preached that the peaceful transfer of power is what made America exceptional. Then came Jan. 6, and even worse, the attempt to normalize the violence that day by actual elected officials. This example may be the most well-known, most egregious, but it is not alone. The slow eroding of democracy is happening right here in New Hampshire, taking place at the State House.
The last 3-Minute Civics was an excellent explanation of the legislative process in New Hampshire as explained by Judge Delker. It spoke of the power of the average citizen to have a say in individual bills, to play an important part in the process. But, like all things political these days, that concept is being eroded for the sake of short-term gain. There is a saying that those who control the purse strings control the power, and most budget bills are used to advance the agenda of the party in power. But in recent years, budget bills are used to pass legislation that those in power fear would fail if presented to the public on an individual basis. For example, in Washington, Democrats attempted to push immigration reform through the budget process, only to be blocked in the courts. But let’s focus on the current legislation here in New Hampshire.
This past summer, the Legislature passed the most all-encompassing budget bill in recent memory. Traditionally a budget bill, House Bill 1, is used to declare how much money will be spent and where. The so-called budget trailer bill, HB 2, is designed to distribute funds to run the government. To get an idea of the scope of the budget bill enacted into law this year, it is useful to dissect a quote from Jason Osborne, the House majority leader. In praising HB 2, he said, “We cut taxes, we reined in the Democrats’ bloated spending from the last term, we provided property-tax relief, we increased education choice, we provided much-needed reform to the governor’s emergency powers, and we prohibited the teaching of false ideas that certain individuals are inherently racist due to the color of their skin.” Tax relief, limiting spending, and property-tax revision are all typical of a budget bill. What isn’t typical is what follows. HB 2 uses the power of the purse to push not just economic or political agendas, but social issues as well.
Let’s examine the provision in HB 2 for school choice. It was originally proposed as Senate Bill 130 this past January. According to normal legislative procedure, this bill should run through the democratic process as outlined in Judge Delker’s article with public hearings and public votes. Instead, it was rolled into HB 2, a budget bill, which severely limited public participation on the subject of school choice. The public hearing for HB 2, an opportunity for the public to respond to issues ranging from school choice to abortion to executive power, was held on a Tuesday afternoon via zoom.
Additionally, Rep. Osborne mentions the new law prohibiting teaching certain ideas surrounding racism. The bill was originally introduced as HB 544, but instead of letting it play out in the traditional legislative process it was modified and buried on page 155 of HB 2. No language related to HB 544 was found on the Senate calendar or the meeting sign-up. It appeared to many that the sponsors of the original bill did not want the public to know it was there. Gov. Chris Sununu himself said of HB 544, “I do appreciate that they took that old piece of garbage and threw it away, which we asked them to, and they couldn’t even pass it and replace it with something that was more stable.” Yet there was not enough confidence for this new measure to pass on its own merits.
Compounding the problem is the all-or-nothing choice Sununu had when the bill hit his desk. New Hampshire is one of only six states that do not give the governor line-item veto power. Line-item veto would have given Gov. Sununu the power to remove some of the items not directly related to the budget from the final law. Unlike in 2019 when Sununu vetoed the Democratic budget, it was unlikely that the governor was going to veto a Republican budget bill, which would deal his party a major defeat and might throw the New Hampshire economy into chaos as everything from state workers seeing their paychecks disappear to DMVs shutting down, causing ripples across a state still dealing with a COVID economy.
This situation can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as the Legislature tying the governor’s hands, forcing him to pass some parts he objects to in order to avoid a shutdown. For example, Sununu publicly touted himself as pro-choice during the last campaign. HB 2’s anti-abortion provisions run counter to his public statements, but because they were not passed as a separate bill were safe from his veto. He told Foster’s Daily Democrat just that when he said, “It is not my bill. … Do you want me to scrap a $13 billion budget for this one item? I will not do that.”
On the other hand, this situation allows a politically ambitious governor to have his cake and eat it too. By placing controversial issues in a budget bill, this gives the governor the cover he needs to deflect blame for anything seen as unpopular with moderate voters. Signing a bill full of school choice funds, abortion restrictions, and control over school curriculum can make Sununu the darling of conservative voters. But he can also eat the cake by claiming to more moderate voters that his hands were tied and he held his nose as he used his pen.
On a third hand (how do you buy gloves for THAT guy?), there is the idea that this all-encompassing budget is the product of necessity, that COVID prevented numerous committee meetings and debates over the separate issues. This would imply that this is a one-off, but the trend started before the pandemic. Either way, hopefully we can return soon to the process that makes New Hampshire the closest state to a true democracy in the nation.
Aaron Blais teaches at Exeter High School. Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.