State House Memo: Crafting a responsible state budget means balancing numbers and needs
New Hampshire Senate and House members will soon meet in a committee of conference to iron out the differences between their versions of the state budget in order to meet a June 30 deadline. I am encouraged that there are many points of agreement between the budgets, with shared commitments to fund higher education, mental health services and fully funding of the developmental disabilities waitlist. As Gov. Maggie Hassan has said, there are many areas that we all agree upon.
Through eight weeks of hearings, including a seven-hour public comment period, the Senate Finance Committee fielded requests from constituents and departments alike, because their input is critical to the budget process. The $10.7 billion spending package passed by the Senate represents a modest 3 percent increase over the last budget and invests heavily in higher education and critical human services without raising taxes or fees. As a result of compromise and creativity, the Senate budget addresses our priorities while spending some
$400 million less than what Hassan proposed and $300 million less than the plan passed by the House.
Republicans in the state Senate believe strongly in not burdening our taxpayers through raising taxes. As a result, we removed the 12-cent gas tax and 20-cent tobacco tax passed by the House, as well as House-passed tax increases on salt-water fishing and marriage licenses. Additionally, the Senate preserved the business tax cuts and reform efforts enacted last session that both the governor and House proposed suspending.
This will be an area of disagreement during the committee of conference, however, Senate Republicans are steadfast in our belief that New Hampshire residents and businesses should not be asked to pay more to fund bigger government at a time of continued economic difficulty.
This budget places a high priority on education. Our budget restores $24.5 million to the UNIQUE Scholarship program – which benefits low-income New Hampshire families – and increases the combined general fund appropriation to the university and community college systems by over $100 million. Additionally, the Senate increased education grants to cities and towns by nearly $4 million, and removed the moratorium on new charter schools.
The Senate budget appropriates $300 million more to the Department of Health and Human Services compared with last biennium and $24 million more than the House. This includes full funding for the developmental disabilities waitlist, restoration of the breast and cervical cancer screening and prevention program, and a significant increase in payments to county nursing homes over the House. We provide an additional $30 million for mental health services compared with current funding levels and also maintain the House’s level of funding for the CHINS program and domestic violence prevention.
Finally, the Senate budget removes provisions expanding Medicaid in New Hampshire, opting to study the long-term costs of expansion via a bipartisan commission charged with determining how best to cover those in New Hampshire who are uninsured. We recognize this will be the other main area of disagreement among negotiators. However, we believe prudence dictates that rather than rush into a fundamental overhaul and expansion of the state’s largest and most expensive program we first study it carefully and consider different options for New Hampshire. While we may not receive an immediate influx of federal money as some have hoped, it is our belief that a careful understanding of this program will ensure New Hampshire is protected in the long-run.
Every state budget is full of challenges and difficult choices; this one is no different. The Senate is offering a responsible and honest spending plan for the next two years, and I am confident that it contains more areas of agreement than disagreement among all involved.
In the weeks ahead, I look forward to working with our colleagues in the House to achieve consensus and compromise on those areas where we disagree in a way that keeps our budget balanced and spending in check now and into the future.
(Republican Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.)