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Republican budget negotiators finalize $11.7 billion budget



Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Online scratch tickets are in, but a $2.5 million payment to the Concord School District is out. Republican budget negotiators reached agreement on an $11.7 billion state spending plan Wednesday that is already facing pushback from both sides of the aisle.

The budget is set to come up for a full vote in the House and Senate next Thursday after the committee of conference spent the past few days making tweaks.

Budget negotiators approved an expansion of state lottery that is expected to raise $13 million and attract the millenial market. Players would have to register at a convenience store before they could access scratch tickets through a mobile app on a phone or tablet.

Facing House opposition, budget negotiators axed a payment to Concord schools that was meant to defray the cost of transitioning from steam heat.

“The House basically believed we shouldn’t be funding directly to one community. I think we will be debating that more and more as we move along,” said Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican.

In a last-minute addition, Republicans also approved new work requirements for people enrolled in the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Low-income adults would have to work, attend job training or go to school for at least 20 hours per week to qualify for the state-subsidized health insurance. Should the federal government reject the work requirement as it did last year, expanded Medicaid would end by 2018.

Overall, the blueprint changed little from the one passed by Republican senators last month. But the plan’s future is far from certain. Though Republicans control the House, Senate and corner office, the party hasn’t been able to reach widespread agreement on the state’s next two-year spending plan.

The plan’s business tax cuts and anti-abortion policies are meant to attract support from House conservatives, who helped defeat the Republican-crafted budget in April.

While House Finance Committee Chairman Neal Kurk said he is confident the budget will pass with broad Republican support, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus pledged to kill it. Republican Rep. Jim McConnell said the cuts to state spending don’t go far enough.

“It fails to get anywhere near the numbers we were looking for,” he said.

The budget proposal isn’t gaining any traction among the minority party either. Democratic lawmakers complained the plan reduces taxes while under-funding services for people with developmental disabilities, higher education and child welfare. Others raised concerns about the addition of a clause that would prevent state money from funding abortions, a policy that providers in New Hampshire already follow.

“The route we have chosen is not the route that is going to help the people of the state,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat.

Republican leaders said the budget takes steps to address a mental health crisis while protecting taxpayers by not raising new fees. House Speaker Shawn Jasper said the fact that roughly half the budget’s spending goes to health and human services shows that lawmakers care.

“I encourage everyone at the table to put aside their small differences and recognize how much good this budget does,” he said.

The conference committee, which is meant to reconcile differences between the House and Senate, began meeting last week. Most of the deals were worked out behind closed doors and then presented to the public with little discussion or debate.

The budget still includes a new $10 million student scholarship program, an expansion of mental health treatment beds in the state and more money for domestic violence crisis centers. It also gives new power to the governor’s office to award school districts money for capital projects.

Few advocacy groups released statements on the spending plan. New Futures, however, criticized lawmakers for approving a budget that would let the governor divert money out of a state addiction treatment fund.

“Weakening the addiction treatment system in the midst of New Hampshire’s devastating opioid crisis will place the lives of people struggling with addiction at risk,” the organization’s CEO and President Linda Saunders Paquette said. “This irresponsible decision by the committee cannot be overstated, and will be felt for years to come, as our public health crisis will only intensify without long-term sustainable investments.”

The governor would be allowed to reach into the so-called alcohol fund to help pay for operations at the state’s juvenile detention center in case of emergencies and with approval from the fiscal committee. The Sununu Youth Services Center would be partially converted into a substance abuse treatment center for minors under the budget. Roughly $2 million to cover the construction would come out of the alcohol fund, which is overseen by the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)