The Hippo


Oct 14, 2019








Disunified government
A look at the NH Freedom Caucus

By Ryan Lessard

 When the House failed to pass a budget for the first time in decades, Speaker Shawn Jasper, a moderate Republican, criticized the 30 to 60 fellow Republicans who blocked the legislation, which didn’t raise taxes but did increase spending. That opposition, which calls itself the New Hampshire House Freedom Caucus, was happy to take credit. 

J.R. Hoell, a fourth-term Republican state rep from Dunbarton, says he co-founded the caucus with the help of a former House member from the Seacoast who wishes to remain anonymous. 
“On March 24, the URL was registered with a phone call between myself and one other person and within a week we had decided the budget … was significantly higher than we wanted to see,” Hoell said referring to the website “The spending was up almost $300 million on the state portion of the budget. And we started having meetings with various members who were opposed to [House Bill 1].”
According to its official description, the caucus is a grassroots organization that consists of legislators and private citizens who believe in “personal liberty” and “traditional conservative ‘Yankee’ values.”
Hoell said there is no official, published list of caucus members but there is an email chain that includes the interested members. Even in their first major victory, the defeat of the budget, they didn’t act as a cohesive unit. Sixty-six Republicans voted against the budget and 32 voted against the budget trailer bill, HB2. 
Hoell estimates the larger conservative faction, as he calls it, numbers around 85. For an idea of which members are included in that, he suggests looking at the roll call to see the Republican “nay” votes opposing the dairy farm relief bill SB10. 
Hoell says nearly all parts of the state are represented in the caucus. 
“It’s across the state,” Hoell said. 
Hoell had some help from former House Speaker Bill O’Brien when Hoell asked him to invite members to a meeting where they spent two hours discussing budget numbers and arriving at a clear goal.
Besides the website, the group also has Twitter and Facebook accounts. 
The formation of the New Hampshire House Freedom Caucus was inspired by the similarly named group in Congress, which prevented Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. 
“The House Freedom Caucus was kind of a branch off of what we saw in Washington, D.C., when a small group of conservatives got together and stopped effectively Obamacare 2.0 and said, ‘We want a complete repeal.’ Just nipping around the edges wasn’t good enough,” Hoell said. “We did the same thing. In this case, it was regarding a very bloated New Hampshire state budget that was proposed by the House.”
What it wants
The caucus was founded primarily to push back on a budget its members thought was too bloated.
“Our party platform was very clear on state spending not rising faster than the rate of inflation plus population growth. … So we drew the line in the sand based on historic rates of inflation relative to growth of the state spending,” Hoell said. 
He said spending in this budget grew by 10.5 percent over the biennium. Judging by the most recent consumer price index data, Hoell and his fellow caucus members decided spending growth should not exceed 3 percent, or 1.5 percent annually.
Partly, this is due to the fear that sending millions to local communities will create a new normal that is based on stronger revenues from a good economy and communities will be forced to raise tax rates or make cuts when the economy slows down.
Hoell is optimistic that the Senate will produce a budget more to the liking of the caucus and expects a longer period of deliberation than the typical week where House and Senate merge budgets known as the committee of conference. 
After this budget process is concluded, Hoell said, it’s possible the group might continue to serve a purpose.
“There is clearly an interest in having a group in Concord that supports the individual rights of the taxpayers, that protects their personal liberties and while there are a number of outside groups, there is no internal caucus that focuses just on that. And maybe that’s the need that this group fills long-term,” Hoell said.
On April 20, it was announced that the caucus had created a PAC that would raise money to help the campaigns of current and future members. 
Historical phenomenon
Political analyst Dean Spiliotes said it’s not uncommon to see internecine fractures within a party and for wings of a party to stall legislation desired by party leadership even in cases where the party has control of the legislature and the executive.
“To be fair, it’s not just the GOP. It’s really a larger phenomenon involving unified government in general,” Spiliotes said.
He points to cases at the federal level where unified government was thwarted by members of the controlling party that tended to be on the wings of the ideological spectrum, such as the first couple years of the Eisenhower administration, the Carter administration and the Clinton administration.
Spiliotes said it tends to be easier for parties to coalesce when they’re in the opposition.
“When you finally have unified government, there’s an assumption that you can finally move the party’s agenda forward but what you end up seeing is these fissures that maybe have been sort of temporarily downplayed or less visible start to become more obvious,” Spiliotes said.

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