Here’s the thing - we here at Civics 101 are not money people. We don’t really do “math” and we avoid opening our bank apps at all costs. That’s why, in the first two episodes of Civics 101: New Hampshire, we decided to grab the fiscal bull by the horns and learn about New Hampshire’s budget. We have a lot of questions, like, um, what is the budget? Who writes it, and what do we spend money on? And how are New Hampshire’s spending decisions different from other states?
In part one, we trace the life of the budget, from when it's a glimmer in the eye of a state agency to a full-grown piece of legislation. We speak with Anna Brown and Jacquelyn Benson from Citizens Count, a source for nonpartisan political information in New Hampshire.
NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:00:00] Money is sexy.
[00:00:16] But the word "budget" reeks of responsibility.
[00:00:28] Even if I try to drown it and Axe body spray the word budget would still be off putting. But today you're going to hear that budgets can be drop dead gorgeous. Or at least worth checking out.
[00:00:50] The New Hampshire operating budget is such a large hairy beast, we had to cut it up into two separate parts.
Ben Henry: [00:01:02] This is Civics 101 New Hampshire. We are digging into the state budget. In part one, Jacqui Helbert tears apart the budget. What is it? Who writes it? And How does it get passed?
Jacqui Helbert: [00:01:27] To help us get to the bottom of how it all works we enlisted the help of Citizens Count, a nonpartisan group that provides information about things like issues, bills, and politicians. They make it easy for New Hampshirites to get involved.
Anna Brown: [00:01:48] The budget is important to understand because it's how we set our priorities.
Archival audio: [00:01:54] Marijuana: the burning weed with its roots in Hell.
Anna Brown: [00:01:58] Marijuana legalization is a huge issue that's coming up and it's all about the dollar signs. What's the cost of enforcement. What's the cost. The revenue we can get from the taxes.
[00:02:09] My name is Anna Brown. I'm director of research and analysis for citizens count which means I'm kind of a political wonk. I follow all the bills I profile all the legislators.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:02:18] Do you have any fun facts about yourself?
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:02:20] Oh we've got some fun facts.
Anna Brown: [00:02:26] I'm also an amateur MMA fighter.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:02:28] And I am Jacquelyn Benson and I am the editor of citizens count. I am also a historical fiction writer.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:02:35] The New Hampshire state budget is a document that's rich with policy.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:02:39] If the legislature decides this year listen it's a priority. We need to be providing more money to these struggling schools. They've got to find that money somewhere. That's the budget. You know the budget is what will dictate where that falls in terms of policy.
Archival audio: [00:03:00] Funding for special education transportation and food services are in question along with teacher and staff jobs. You know I'm here right now where we stand and we're being asked we're being told that we're looking at teacher layoffs. This is just making my stomach turn.
[00:03:22] Michelle Parker and educator in the Timberland school district since 1997 stepped in front of a packed school board meeting to say she is not being offered a letter to return. Essentially she's been pink slipped.
[00:03:36] I'm also one of the many who are not being offered a letter of agreement for the upcoming school year.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:03:45] Because there's going to be a ton of other things that are all competing for this money. Mental health, addiction services. You've got a finite amount, where are you going to spend it?
Jacqui Helbert: [00:04:03] So how much money does New Hampshire have.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:04:05] The two year budget for the last biennium I think was like eleven point five. Total.
Anna Brown: [00:04:12] Eleven point seven billion.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:04:16] That's around six billion dollars a year because New Hampshire is a high maintenance little thing and has a bi annual budget.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:04:24] The biennial budget. That means we do a budget every two years so we do the budget in the off year after the election.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:04:32] We are one of only four states still proudly have a bi annual budget. This is Jeanne Shaheen not only this her poetic name roll off the tongue that Jeanne Shaheen also has a stellar resume.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:04:45] Right now I'm the senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire. That means long serving. Before that I was the governor from 1997 to 2003 and before that I was in the state Senate from nineteen ninety one to 1997.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:05:01] Jeanne Shaheen has seen how the sausage gets made.
Archival audio: [00:05:04] Coming up with a spending plan for the state of New Hampshire is certainly not glamorous but it's definitely important to the economic health of the state. The task is not easy.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:05:15] In phase one every agency within the government creates its own state budget requests.
[00:05:23] They had to predict how much money they'll need. As far as three years into the future. Agencies making requests for funding include the board of economic development the Board of Dental Examiners and my favorite the Board of Registration of funeral directors and embalmers.
Archival audio: [00:05:43] Let's turn to our agenda. First time our agenda is number one.
Anna Brown: [00:05:47] The agency heads, so people working under the governor....
Jacqui Helbert: [00:05:50] The big dogs.
[00:05:51] Are going to come to the governor and they're going to say okay there are two options here. Here's the budget. That is exactly what we need to keep operating. And here's the budget we would like to really do our job better.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:06:02] Mixed Martial Artist Anna Brown.
Anna Brown: [00:06:05] And you can imagine that's going to be a little more money.
Archival audio: [00:06:07] Thursday Concord budget writers more than a dozen agency heads who collectively have already submitted a wish list totaling twelve point seven billion dollars. That's more than 20 percent higher than the last budget.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:06:18] I was surprised by how short the agency hearings are. The Boxing and Wrestling Commission got 15 whole minutes. While the Office of the Child Advocate got 5.
[00:06:31] Altogether the last state budget requests were four thousand four hundred and thirty five pages long. That's as big as a page count for the entire Harry Potter series plus the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Anna Brown: [00:06:54] Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of lines of just dollar signs.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:07:01] A real page turner. It's now the governors responsibility to comb through every single line of the request and craft a spending plan.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:07:19] For me that will be a total deal breaker.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:07:23] Jeanne Shaheen is into it.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:07:25] Because you originate the budget, you have a chance to at least put down the draft that people walk from.
Archival audio: [00:07:33] Those requests total far more than our taxpayers and our economy can afford.
[00:07:40] Governor has already told him to try again.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:07:45] The governor isn't holed up underground all alone polishing their precious budget. They have an entire office of experts who are also polishing the budget. The budget office.
Anna Brown: [00:07:58] Here's one really important thing that does set new hampshire apart. Many other states. New Hampshire you have to have a balanced budget. So you cannot say we're going to borrow this money. We think this money will be here or we're going to bet against the future. If you are looking to spend money you have to say exactly where the money's coming from.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:08:17] Where does New Hampshire his money come from. Well a lot of different places.
Archival audio: [00:08:22] New Hampshire is home to 11 Powerball and hundreds of megabucks jackpot winner. Some Granite Staters are opening up their property tax bills this week and they're doing a double take. New Hampshire Liquor and wine outlets its new superstore Route 3 Exit 6 Nashua New Hampshire.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:08:37] That's that's the deal. We can't take out a loan we can't go into debt to fund something in the budget and that's in our state law. So if they ever wanted to change that they'd have to change the law.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:08:55] At. Last. The four thousand pages that the governor started with, has now been condensed down into 800 ish pages which is the page count of only the first three Harry Potter books. Good job guys Thank you.
Archival audio: [00:09:14] Good to see everyone here braving it braving the elements this budget proposal.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:09:20] It's unveiled in the televized state budget address. TV cameras everywhere adoring lawmakers standing up and clapping. Must see TV.
Anna Brown: [00:09:32] At that point, the governor doesn't have any say anymore at that point it's in the hands of the legislature specifically 800 hands attached to the members of the House of Representatives just like any other piece of legislation.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:09:49] It is a bill, it goes through the legislative process like any other how a bill becomes law is how a budget becomes law. There are special steps in this process but at the end of the day it's a bill and it has to be voted on and approved by the legislature and signed by the governor just like any other bill.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:10:07] The clock is ticking. The house is on a shorter deadline. The governor had five and a half months to polish. But the House only has a month and a half to create their own version unlike the governor.
[00:10:21] They don't have their own budget staff. They don't even have their own desks. The budget bill starts racing through a maze of commitees, House Ways committee, finance division 1 committee, finance division 2 committee.
[00:10:39] The committees hold their own hearings with agency heads the big dogs again explain what they need to keep operating and what they would like to do their jobs better.
[00:10:50] This next step is something that makes the granite state not extra but extra special.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:10:57] You know one of the things that we have in our legislature that I think is very important for our citizens is every bill that's introduced and the legislature gets a hearing. You can't as in some states the leadership or the committee can't decide well we're not going to have a hearing on this. We're not going to give the public a chance to have input. And I think that's really an important part not just of putting together the budget for the state but of how we deal with issues in New Hampshire.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:11:27] You as an ordinary member of the public can show up in front of the House Finance Committee in front of the Senate Finance Committee and have your personal opinion about this whatever it is you're passionate about that you think we should or shouldn't be spending our money on. You can go there and you can have your say.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:11:44] One of the things that I can remember having a big impact on the budget process was there were efforts to cut funding for the disability community and that community turned out in great numbers.
Archival audio: [00:11:59] That's hurting the disabled community, it's hurting the mental health community.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:12:03] And convinced legislators that that was not what we should be doing cutting funding for their need a significant pain in the budget.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:12:14] The House Finance Committee passes it to the full House of Representatives. Do you like me. Check yes or no.
Anna Brown: [00:12:22] At that point, the budget then goes to the full House of Representatives for a vote just like any bill. Just like any bill the House is going to vote on that. They might make a couple changes on the floor. It's usually a really long voting day when the budget comes to the floor because a lot of legislators are going to get really up in arms about what they want to spend on. But at the end of the day it'll pass.
Archival audio: [00:12:43] This is a great win for the state of New Hampshire. This budget will do a lot of good things.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:12:49] Keep in mind the budget that the House passed could be nothing like what the governor handed them and then it goes to the Senate. The civically the 48 hands of the senators and the whole process starts all over again like it's stuck in a time loop like it's stuck in a time loop.
Anna Brown: [00:13:07] So the Senate Finance Committee is going to do the same thing, they're going to look at the budget. They're going to hold public hearings. Any member of the public can come agency heads can come and give their opinion. The governor can show up and give his opinion. Anybody were all equal on that that Senate floor then the Senate Finance Committee will make their recommendation what they think that it should look like.
[00:13:30] Once again although there are some wildcards sometimes what happens when you put it on the floor a majority of the Senate will vote to pass the.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:13:43] When the smoke finally clears. We're looking at two different budget proposals. A Senate budget and a House budget neither can live while the other survives.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:13:56] The challenge is not Democrats versus Republicans. The challenge is the House versus the Senate. You do have to compromise because you want to get a budget you want to keep the government operating.
Anna Brown: [00:14:08] So the House and Senate have to agree the way they do this is they set up a committee of conference that's a selection of House of Representatives members and Senate members they'll come together in a committee and They'll hash out what they think the budget should be. That final document the conference committee budget will once again get a vote from the full House and the full Senate.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:14:30] They all have to agree.
Anna Brown: [00:14:32] And then it goes back to the governor.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:14:34] Back into the two hands sit lovingly shaped it. All it needs now is one of those hands to give a teeny tiny signature.
Archival audio: [00:14:43] Before officially giving a thumbs up to the budget agreement a sign that it was done came in the form of a few congratulatory handshakes from the governor. We don't want to count our chickens for they're hatched here but I am very encouraged by the compromise and the collaboration.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:14:56] But this is politics. The governor doesn't have to sign it.
Archival audio: [00:15:01] I am here this morning to reiterate my intention to veto the fiscally irresponsible Republican budget.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:15:09] They have veto power.
Anna Brown: [00:15:11] For whatever reason maybe they don't think that there's going to be enough revenue to match what the budget is spending on. Maybe they opposed some of the priorities.
Jeanne Shaheen: [00:15:18] As you do the math. You know that you don't have the money in the bank account to actually pay for services at the level that this budget says it's paying for.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:15:28] The governor can't line veto a budget which means they can't say no on a specific purchase. It's either veto the entire budget or vetoed nothing. Live free or die.
Anna Brown: [00:15:41] Then it's up to the legislature to pass a temporary spending bill while they scrambled to figure out what they're going to do.
[00:15:48] Usually they'll just keep on spending levels from the previous two years and then they'll gather later in the summer or the early fall to either override the governor's veto or pass another revised budget.
Archival audio: [00:15:58] That's on for a while there sure seem like the budget battle was destined to head into the summertime but it roughly 3 8 AM this morning a tentative deal was struck by lawmakers and every couple of hours sleep there are back at it this morning to wrap it all up.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:16:12] If a budget can't be passed then the government will shut down but that's not really something the worry about.
[00:16:19] New Hampshire has a good track record. The last time anything that dramatic happened was around 1960.
Archival audio: [00:16:25] Everybody didn't get everything they wanted. All of us are going to walk away with some little piece that we're disappointed in. But on the whole I think all of us walk away with I we can be proud of.
[00:16:35] We're happy because.
Anna Brown: [00:16:37] The whole budget writing process takes a year. So you have a year of writing the budget. And then one year where maybe we get other things done I suppose and then it's all over again.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:16:49] It's an enormous task. It's an enormous task.
Ben Henry: [00:16:51] What we decide to spend our money on mental health care, education, children's advocacy, or wrestling is a direct reflection of our values as people and as the Granite State.
[00:17:13] That's it for our show today. This episode was produced by Jacqui Helbert our staff includes Daniela Allee, Jack Rodolico, and me, Ben Henry. Our executive producer is Erica Janik.
[00:17:30] Big thanks to Dean Lacy, Phil Sletten, and Michael York for their help. The music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions and Monplaiser. Civics 101: New Hampshire is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We're a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.