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House, Senate budget negotiators dig in heels over Medicaid expansion

House and Senate budget negotiators dug in their heels yesterday on the question of Medicaid expansion, with House Democrats arguing it’s a good deal for New Hampshire and Senate Republicans saying it needs more study.

“I think this is a serious discussion. We’re all willing to discuss it, Republicans and Democrats. But I think it needs to go through the process of all of us asking tough questions and building a better system for the state of New Hampshire,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Morse added, “The Senate is not going to entertain this in the budget. How it’s constructed that we go through this in the fall, we will entertain.”

But Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said expanding the Medicaid program would improve the lives of low-income residents without draining state resources, thanks to federal money that would cover the full cost of the expansion for three years and at least 90 percent in future years.

“We are convinced the numbers work in our favor.
. . . The House believes there is plenty of evidence for expanding Medicaid now,” Rosenwald said. “Doing so is extremely low risk. It will increase revenues beyond cost, help our hospitals, mental health providers and health centers by decreasing uncompensated care and improving the health and well-being of our people.”

She added, “We believe we should take advantage of this opportunity now and study the outcomes as we move along, using the learning to improve program efficiencies before the 100 percent federal payment period ends in 2017.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, supports expanding Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care reform law championed by President Obama. The House’s version of the budget would expand Medicaid starting next year, but the Senate’s budget instead creates a special commission to study the option.

Yesterday, the second day of budget negotiations between the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House, saw the two sides reach agreement on a few issues. But much remains unresolved, including Medicaid expansion, the Senate’s proposed $50 million cut to state personnel costs and the House’s proposed 30-cent hike in the cigarette tax.

Budget negotiations will resume this morning. The committee of conference has until Thursday to craft a compromise state budget for the biennium that begins July 1, with final votes by the House and Senate expected next week.

“I certainly hope so,” said House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, when asked whether the conference committee will finalize the state budget by the deadline.

The budget negotiators also made little progress yesterday on estimating revenue from state taxes and fees for the next two years.

The Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee last week adopted revenue estimates $49.2 million higher than the Senate’s estimates, with higher numbers for business taxes, the real estate transfer tax and the meals-and-rooms tax.

Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the figures are reasonable based on estimates for economic growth and improvement in the real estate market.

But Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the Senate stands by its estimates and is wary of overestimating revenues.

“I don’t want to get into a whole bunch of numbers. I don’t think we need to,” Odell said. “We have made our plan. We think it’s a good plan and it’s a reasonable plan.”

Still, negotiators did reach tentative agreements yesterday on a few items, including a $500,000 across-the-board cut to the Police Standards and Training Council’s budget and a $1.6 million transfer from the state’s general fund to the Fish and Game Department, which is supposed to be self-supporting.

The House negotiators agreed to give up on a proposed $5 increase to the saltwater fishing license fee, which was opposed by the Senate. But they didn’t concede on another fee increase opposed by the Senate, a $5 hike in the marriage license fee that would fund domestic violence programs. (In its budget, the Senate funded the programs using other money.)

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

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