Budget Debates of Today Are Much Friendlier Than They Used to Be

Charlie Arlinghaus

July 1, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Today’s politics are a model of civility and decorum compared to the budget debates of the recent past. The remarkably mild name calling associated with the current governor’s veto of the budget pales in comparison to the rancor and high drama of budget debates just a few decades ago.

People obsessed with today bereft of any memory of yesterday are fond of pretending that partisan rancor is worse today than it has ever been. We are routinely told that politicians today are angrier and less civil than just a few years ago. In fact, the opposite is true.

Today’s discourse is dramatically more civil. Disagreements are more likely to be painted as bad politics. The brutal budget debates of thirty years ago were much more personal and the rhetoric significantly less forgiving.

The first budget veto in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1981. Gov. Hugh Gallen vetoed the state budget after two days of an illegal strike masquerading as a sick out by state employees. They were demanding Gallen stand up for a 9% raise instead of the 6% being offered by the legislature. So he vetoed the budget he didn’t like anyway.

One of the evening papers was happy that Gallen “rejected the utter stupidity of the House and Senate leadership.” In their mind of course it wasn’t the budget that had fallen short but that the leaders were utterly stupid.

The House Speaker had described the veto itself as “an irresponsible act as well as one that was irrational.” And things deteriorated from there.  After a series of parliamentary games, the House Democrats walked out and boycotted the vote on a second budget late at night on the last day. Democratic leader Chris Spirou called the majority liars and they called him childish in the press.

The legislature rejected Gallen’s request for a six month continuing budget resolution at the prior year’s levels (something the current legislature and governor agreed to last week). Instead they passed a budget with the exact same spending totals but rejiggered to include the 9% raise and an offsetting $10 million cut to personnel that the governor asked for. Those workers not let go received the raise.

In true brinksmanship, Gallen was sent the budget at the last minute before it expired and he signed it reluctantly at 12:02 a.m.

These angry games pale by comparison to the mess of four years prior. The 1977 budget debates were a mess and included two weeks of the government operating without legal authority. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on anything that year. The midnight deadline came and went until lawmakers retired at 5:00 a.m. without agreement or authority for the government to operate.

The state treasurer had issued the July 1 paychecks on June 30 (for the prior two weeks) because agreement seemed so remote. Agreement on even a temporary budget resolution only came after the Attorney General ruled that the state could not issue any checks to anyone without some legal authority.

When a final budget came to pass, the governor ridiculed it as “rifled throughout with mean, vindictive, and dangerous political ploys.” He let it become law without his signature. House Speaker George Roberts suggested the governor hadn’t bothered to read the budget, adding “if he did read it then he is either a liar or does not understand the budget.” I suppose if they hadn’t both been in the same political party they might have been less guarded in their speech.

The budget debate this year resembles none of that. Both sides agree, more or less, about the substance of the dispute and neither Gov. Hassan nor Sen. Morse nor Speaker Jasper has started name calling. Instead, each side is trying to win an argument about the issues in dispute.

There is tremendous hostility behind the scenes but in public everyone is behaving like an adult for now. However, there is still time for that to change. A six-month temporary budget took the wind out of everyone’s sails and will probably lead to a 6-8 week cooling off period in which nothing happens.

The new compromise budget will be fairly similar to the old one just as it was in 1981. Will the cooling off period keep the frustrations of compromise from boiling over or will we be treated to accusations of lying and stupidity?