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Compared with 2011, few fireworks expected as N.H. House votes on state budget

When the Republican-led House passed its budget two years ago, thousands of protesters gathered outside the State House. Clergy led a prayer vigil outside the speaker’s office. At one point, the House gallery was cleared of shouting protesters and temporarily closed.

When the Democratic-led House takes up its budget tomorrow, speeches will be made and a half-dozen or more floor amendments will be offered. But the overall tone is more muted, and Republicans – now in the minority – say they don’t plan to prolong the debate or delay the vote.

“We’re not going to flood the thing and have a filibuster. . . . We just want to get our points out,” said Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 made what it described as tough choices to balance a two-year, $10.2 billion state budget without tax hikes or fee increases. Democrats now control the House, and their proposed two-year budget contains roughly $11 billion in spending, with more money for mental health services and community colleges but less money than Gov. Maggie Hassan wanted for public universities, hospitals, charter schools and local school building aid.

The version of the budget going to the House floor tomorrow also includes a 12-cent hike in the gas tax, a 30-cent increase in the cigarette tax and a handful of fee increases. It doesn’t include any revenue from casino gambling, an option supported by Hassan, a Democrat.

Once it passes the House, the budget will go to the Republican-controlled Senate. Final negotiations are expected in June; the next biennium begins July 1.

GOP criticism

The House Finance Committee last week completed work on its version of the state’s two-year operating budget. The House Public Works and Highways Committee completed work on a capital budget as well.

“I’m proud of the product we produced, a balanced budget that restores investments in our state, communities and children and re-establishes the safety net for our most vulnerable citizens,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the Finance Committee, in a statement.

The House budget-writers excised $80 million in revenue from a casino license that Hassan had included in her budget, and cut general fund spending by $57.7 million.

Hassan had proposed more money for mental health services, community colleges, public universities and hospitals. The House panel trimmed funding for universities and hospitals and slashed money for charter schools and local school building aid.

Chandler, Weare Rep. Neal Kurk and about 18 other GOP representatives held a news conference yesterday to criticize the budget, saying it relies on overly optimistic revenue estimates and includes tax increases that will hurt low-income residents.

“It’s unfortunate for me to have to say this, but it appears to me and many of my Republican colleagues that this budget is balanced on the backs of the poor and on the backs of small business,” said Kurk, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee.

Kurk said Republicans plan to offer a number of floor amendments during tomorrow’s debate. He said his biggest concerns are a proposed continued moratorium on school building aid and the downshifting of as much as $7 million in long-term care costs from the state to county governments.

Chandler, however, said there are no plans to fight over the proposed capital budget, or force a second day of debate on the operating budget.

Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, criticized Republicans for saying the budget spends too much money and, at the same time, complaining it cuts funding in areas like school building aid.

“As April Fools’ jokes come along, this is probably . . . the most elaborate one I’ve ever seen,” Buckley said.

2011 tumult

In any case, the process has been more sedate this year than it was in 2011.

Republicans had won veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate the previous fall, to a large extent sidelining then-Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat. The budget proposed in the House made deep cuts to state services, outraging Democrats and activists.

On March 30, 2011, about eight people, including several pastors, held a five-hour vigil outside Speaker Bill O’Brien’s office, before being escorted out of the building by state troopers.

The next day, a crowd of protesters estimated between 2,500 and 5,000 people gathered on the State House lawn as the House debated the budget, at times chanting, “Throw it out!”

In the House gallery, shouting protesters prompted O’Brien to clear the gallery and temporarily close it, a decision upheld by a vote of the House and quickly challenged in court as a violation of the state Constitution.

(One of the plaintiffs was Hassan, then a former Democratic state senator from Exeter. The gallery was opened later in the day and the lawsuit was later dismissed as moot.)

No similar protests have been announced this week, though the House’s proposed budget isn’t just opposed by the GOP and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

The state chapter of the NEA, a teachers’ union, held a news conference yesterday to announce its support of Hassan’s budget and opposition to the House plan, in part because it doesn’t including revenue from expanded gambling.

“The choice is not between the governor’s budget and a better plan,” said Scott McGilvray, NEA New Hampshire’s president. “The choice is between Gov. Hassan’s budget, and one that slashes funding to our university system and shifts costs to already overburdened taxpayers and shifts funding aid for catastrophic special education costs and school transportation.”

But, he said, the union doesn’t plan to organize a protest or similar action when the House meets.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Can anyone ever remember even one time where democrats proposed LESS SPENDING as opposed to MORE TAXES & MORE SPENDING?

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