It will come as no surprise to anyone that while our democratic republic remains the standard for the world in terms of governmental models, partisan priorities too often stand in the way of effective leadership.
That’s true here in New Hampshire as well as Washington. Witness this week’s legislative food fight featuring blame pie and excuse pudding over what appears to be the effective end of this year’s lawmaking.
Recall the Legislature, which this term is led by a Democratic majority, was well into the session when the nation, and state, abruptly shut down in March. Leaders of both parties agreed to postpone work and everyone went home. This week was to be the restart for the House, with a session held Thursday in the UNH hockey arena — social distancing recommended. But a few weeks back, Minority Leader Dick Hinch announced his caucus wouldn’t be voting to extend the normal legislative deadlines. This is needed because with so much time off, many bills can’t even get out of committee, much less be heard and voted on. And there’s still crossover legislation from the Senate to deal with.
Speaker Steve Shurtleff says Hinch had agreed all along to amend the schedule, but was pressured to hold out for the Republicans’ most-treasured reward: tax cuts for big businesses. Hinch says no such agreement existed and his members simply decided they want no part of the Democrats’ agenda, which they were in no position to impede other than through the governor’s veto power.
That’s another side of this: Last year, with Democrats controlling both chambers, Gov. Sununu wore out his veto pen, killing 53 bills that had passed both chambers. The old record for vetoes was 15. This year, running for re-election, Sununu would probably rather not do the same, giving off a very obstructionist vibe right before the voting. So the GOP move to waylay quite a few Democratic bills helps him a lot.
But back to taxes. The parties have been playing tug-o’-war with the business enterprise and business profits tax rates for half a decade. The then-GOP-led Legislature pulled lower rates out of Gov. Maggie Hassan during a 2015 budget standoff, in return for raises for state employees, among other concessions. But those were subject to a sunset clause. And when Sununu took office, joining that GOP majority, the taxes were cut even further, starting in 2018.
There was a catch, however. The cuts were subject to tax revenues remaining at a certain level, or they’d automatically go back to the 2018 level. State revenues were iffy starting off the year, but the pandemic really tanked them, like everything else. That means those cuts will disappear … unless Republicans can find leverage to renegotiate. The looming legislative deadline provides that.
Meanwhile, the Senate, facing no such deadline, has been continuing work. In fact, Senate Democratic leaders have been trying to ensure some of their priorities get through the House by loading dozens of disparate bills into a handful of must-pass “omnibus” measures. In some cases, the packages don’t even make sense, such as folding Keene Sen. Jay Kahn’s genocide education bill into highway renaming legislation (we still can’t figure that one out, especially since there’s an education omnibus bill, too, in which it seems right at home).
Though Senate leadership notes all those bills will still get a full review, it still smacks of back-door legislating, hardly the kind of effort candidates tend to highlight on the campaign trail. The counter-argument is that there’s no reason all those bills ought to die in the Senate just because the House can’t agree to extend its timetable.
One reaction to all this horseplay is that Hinch and Co. are pouting about being on the wrong end of a majority, and it’s both counterproductive and childish. Democrats have suffered that fate for decades without taking their ball and going home — though it should be pointed out they’ve not faced this particular situation.
The other consideration is this: The Democrats have a lot at stake beyond scoring political points with a pie in the face. And with everyone — even big business — facing an unheard-of challenge in the COVID pandemic, maybe letting those lower tax rates remain in place for another year isn’t a bad thing. It’s at least worth negotiating over, and not through dueling press releases.