No one has ever called crafting a state budget easy. There are thousands of decisions and myriad competing interests. And for a new governor, there is also the crunch of getting it all done and printed a mere six weeks after taking office.
But if Gov. Chris Sununu is at all anxious about his final product, he isn’t showing it.
“I think people will be very pleasantly surprised with what New Hampshire can do, kind of the pent-up potential, I think, that we have yet to really explore in terms of how we budget and how we prioritize the needs of the state,” he said this week.
According to the governor, total spending in his two-year budget will come in at around $12 billion dollars; $700 million more than the state’ current spending plan.
Charlie Arlinghaus is Sununu’s top budget adviser. He’s watched state budgets come and go as president of the free-market Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. He says Sununu sees this budget as a chance for New Hampshire to break some bad habits.
“This governor wants the two-year budget balanced in and of itself, not from outside forces, from lawsuits, or one-time carry-forwards or any kind of gimmick," Arlinghaus said. "And that’s not something we always see in New Hampshire, at least in the last decade, because of pressures. So, it’s unusual.”
So are the circumstances Sununu is inheriting. The New Hampshire economy is strong. The state’s balance sheet is solid. New Hampshire faces no imminent threat from costly lawsuits. And then there is the honeymoon vibe at the state house.
“We are so elated to have a republican governor that we will listen very closely to his ideas, and I expect he’ll have more influence than governors in the past because we have waited so long to have a republican governor," said Republican Rep. Ken Weyler, who sits on the House Finance Committee.
Another factor that might help Sununu get his way is that he hasn’t made many specific demands. As a candidate, he said wanted to cut business taxes but didn’t name a specific rate. He said he supported full-day kindergarten but never dwelled on it. And unlike his predecessors -- think Maggie Hassan on a casino, or John Lynch’s and Craig Benson’s promises to eliminate the statewide property tax – Sununu has given himself political room in the budget debate.
That will shrink dramatically when his budget is presented in all its line items. But Arlinghaus said a radical departure from the status quo isn’t in the cards.
“At the end of the day you start where you are today," he said. "There are 43 agencies in the budget; there will be 43 agencies in the budget. Will he have some new programs and new ideas? Sure he will. But I don’t think there is going to be anything shocking.”
Such a result would honor the work of top republicans, including Senate President Chuck Morse, who built the current state budget. But it would also be a welcome outcome for Democrats. You’d have to go back to 2003 to find a budget process in which their ability to affect the outcome was so marginal.
Rep. Dan Eaton, a top Democratic budget writer in the House, says this is a rare year when the conditions exist for a governor of goodwill to please everyone:
“We are sitting pretty good on being able to do a clear budget and meet all the essential needs. Unless there is some sort of political dogma or drama that we are not aware of, I can’t fathom where we are going to have serious problems.”
The budget will be debated until the end of June, which leaves plenty of time for disagreements to emerge.