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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: More details but few surprises seen in newly released budget bill

It will cost more to get a license to catch striped bass. Foster grandparents still won’t get reimbursed for their expenses. The New Hampshire Lottery Commission can continue an incentive program designed to boost ticket sales.

The release of House Bill 2 last week offered many more details about Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed two-year state budget. But at first glance, it didn’t offer a lot of surprises.

“I’ve not noticed anything that’s a big surprise,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank. “That’s important. There shouldn’t be. That would be almost scandalous. . . . What House Bill 2 is about is not surprises, but details.”

The bill, which accompanies the state budget to make related changes in law, wasn’t delivered to the Legislature with the rest of Hassan’s budget on Feb. 14. That’s not unusual – HB 2 has been filed after the Feb. 15 deadline for nine of the last 10 budgets.

Still, Hassan, a Democrat, took considerable criticism from Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the state GOP, and other Republicans over the absent document.

“Every day that goes by without these important budget documents submitted to the Legislature raises

more questions about what Gov. Hassan is trying to hide,” Horn said in a news release March 4, a day before the bill’s text went up on the Legislature’s website.

(According to the docket, the legislation was technically introduced nearly a week earlier, Feb. 27.)

The bill is 63 pages long, and according to the accompanying analysis, makes some 96 changes to state laws. Some are big and some are small, but many are more detailed versions of proposals that were previewed in Hassan’s budget address: an increase in the cigarette tax, a commission to study retiree health benefits for new state employees, a plan to use money from unspecified dedicated funds to balance any budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

“I didn’t see anything that was wholly unexpected in there. . . . There’s not anything that’s jumping out at me right now as, ‘Wow, that’s hidden,’” said Jeff McLynch, executive director of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank.

Many sections, such as those dealing with hospital payments, will be examined closely by legislators and lobbyists. Others might be superseded by other pieces of legislation working their way through the State House – for example, Hassan’s budget repeals the state’s new education tax credit program, but a similar bill has already passed the House.

“There so much in here, and it’s so long this year because there are some sections that are quite involved. . . . we may still be finding surprises here and there,” Arlinghaus said.

Of course, there are a few items that weren’t highlighted in Hassan’s budget speech last month.

Saltwater fishing licenses will cost more under her budget: $15 for an individual, versus $10 now; $75 for charter boats, versus $50 now; and $150 for party boats, versus $100 now. This would reverse a cut made by the Legislature two years ago.

The bill would continue to suspend state revenue sharing with local governments and the reimbursement of expenses for volunteer foster grandparents.

A moratorium on certificates of need for nursing homes, rehabilitation hospitals and other medical facilities would be extended from 2014 to 2016.

The state lottery would be allowed to “develop and implement an employee recognition program for monetary incentives to promote increased sales and compensate lottery sales representatives based upon performance.” Similar language appeared in HB 2 as enacted two years ago.

And Hassan’s budget would also continue to suspend the “displacement of classified state employees by more senior classified state employees,” a practice called bumping rights.

That last point might upset the State Employees’ Association, but the union reassured members last week that it believes bumping is already addressed in its contract with the state.

“Rest assured, we will be monitoring this issue and will alert you if there is any reason for concern. At this time, the suspension of the personnel rule simply has no teeth,” the SEA said in a message.

Work will continue this week on the House’s version of the state budget. Public hearings of the House Finance Committee are scheduled tomorrow in Whitefield and Nashua, and the committee’s divisions are scheduled to hold work sessions on the budget later in the week, as will the Ways and Means Committee.

The House faces an April 4 deadline to pass a budget and send it to the Senate.

Casino vote coming

When the Senate meets Thursday, it will vote on a bill allowing a single casino in New Hampshire. The vote will be watched closely by Hassan, who relied on $80 million from a license for that casino to balance her budget.

But there’s not a lot of suspense. The bill is widely expected to pass the Republican-led Senate – the real test will come in the Democratic-led House, which has traditionally opposed proposals for expanded gambling.

Nine senators have signed on as sponsors, led by Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester and Republican Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem. A 10th, Democratic Sen. Andrew Hosmer of Laconia, voted for it in committee. Four more current senators, including President Peter Bragdon of Milford and Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord, voted for a casino bill in 2010.

And Hooksett Sen. David Boutin, a Republican who has opposed past proposals for casino gambling, announced last week that he’s a “yes” vote this time. Among other things, he said he’d prefer to pay for road and bridge projects with casino revenue instead of an increase in the state gas tax.

“I long have opposed expanded gambling for a variety of reasons. In this particular bill . . . I believe those reasons have been addressed,” Boutin said.

Drones be gone

The House has a backlog of bills awaiting votes Wednesday, spanning issues from Medicaid expansion to abortion, marijuana legalization to speed limits on state highways.

One eye-catcher: the House may pass legislation regulating use of the flying robots known as drones for surveillance purposes, and ban armed drones like the missile-armed Predators used by the military.

House Bill 619 was introduced by Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk and overhauled by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which voted 16-2 to recommend the full House pass it as amended.

“We delight in being in the forefront of stopping Big Brother from making inroads here,” wrote Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, in the committee’s report.

The use of drones by the U.S. government has been increasingly debated as part of larger discussions about national-security policy. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, last week conducted a 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for director of the Central Intelligence Agency over the issue of drone strikes.

The latest version of New Hampshire’s drone bill would place strict limits on surveillance by drones, with acceptable uses including under a search warrant or “to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific person if the United States Secretary of Homeland Security determines that credible intelligence indicates there is that risk.”

It would ban any government or person from owning or using “a drone that is equipped with a bullet, laser-ray, other projectile or any kind of lethal or non-lethal weapon,” and specify that “no person shall use a drone for the purpose of hunting or stalking game.”

It would also require anyone with a drone to make annual reports to the attorney general’s office.

“While this bill might be difficult to enforce, so too are many other laws we pass, and as publicity spreads on the progress of this bill, the committee expects many positive results, if not in the next month or year, then certainly in the mid and long term,” Vaillancourt wrote in the committee report.

Moore’s back

Greg Moore was back at the State House last week to kick off his new gig as state director of Americans for Prosperity, organizing a news conference on the gas tax with his old boss, Mont Vernon Republican Rep. Bill O’Brien.

Moore was the House chief of staff when O’Brien was speaker, before Democrats won back the House in last year’s election. He previously worked at the Department of Health and Human Services under Commissioner John Stephen, then joined Stephen’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010.

Moore replaced Corey Lewandowski, who ran the conservative group’s state chapter for four years and is now its regional director. He said he plans to focus on state-level policy, like the House bill to raise the gas tax, as well as some national issues.

“Our focus continues to be on economic growth and expanding free markets,” Moore said. “Certainly my background in working in state government, both in the New Hampshire House and the Department of Health and Human Services, provides a greater potential for AFP to perhaps get involved in state issues.”

Moore said he’ll discuss with the group’s counsel whether he should register with the state as a lobbyist; Lewandowski wasn’t registered as a lobbyist this year but was registered in 2012.

“If we feel it’s the best approach to have me register as a lobbyist, to have me work directly with legislators, then that’s what we’ll do,” Moore said.

Frontliners

Both 1st District U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster could face tough races next year. After all, Republicans and Democrats have swapped control of New Hampshire’s two congressional seats in three of the last four elections.

And it’s never too early to raise money, which helps explain why Shea-Porter and Kuster are among 26 Democrats who have been named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program.

“We call this program Frontline for a reason – these members are on the vanguard of protecting and expanding the middle class,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the DCCC’s chairman, in a news release. “While the 2014 campaign will be dominated by a strong offense taking on the Tea Party Republican Congress, our success begins with our members.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee isn’t taking a vacation, either.

“The national Democrats are right to be concerned about the re-election prospects of Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster. In two months on the job, both have exhibited extremely poor judgment and have demonstrated that they are way out-of-touch with the people that they purport to serve,” said NRCC spokesman Ian Prior in a statement.

Dinner on the town

President Obama took 12 GOP senators out to dinner last week, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was on the invite list.

Obama hasn’t had the best relationship with congressional Republicans, and Ayotte was a loud critic of Chuck Hagel, the newly confirmed defense secretary, and before him Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was a candidate to become secretary of state.

Among the other senators at Wednesday night’s dinner, according to The Washington Post, were Arizona’s John McCain, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

“I enjoyed the dinner with the president and appreciated the discussion we had about how we could work together to address the fiscal challenges facing the country,” Ayotte said in a statement. “I hope we can continue this important dialogue.”

Senators ranked

Speaking of the U.S. Senate, National Journal came out last month with its annual congressional rankings.

Based on vote ratings, the magazine found Ayotte was the 36th most conservative senator in 2012. Her Democratic counterpart, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, was the 19th most liberal senator.

News of record

∎ U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, will be the “special guest” at the state Democratic Party’s McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, April 6 in Manchester.

∎ Scott Brown, the Republican former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, will be the keynote speaker at the Grafton County Republican Committee’s Lincoln-Reagan Luncheon, April 20 in Hanover.

∎ Ayotte was awarded the 2013 Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award last week by the Women’s Democracy Network. She shared the prize with Selima Ahmad, founder of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

∎ Ben Wakana, who was the Obama campaign’s deputy press secretary in the state last year, is now Shea-Porter’s press secretary.

∎ Ovide Lamontagne, last year’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, is chairman of the Bishop’s Charitable Assistance Fund at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester.

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

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