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N.H. House budget-writing panel urged to not divert LCHIP funding

Gov. Maggie Hassan has proposed a big increase in funding for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, known as LCHIP, and a senior GOP legislator yesterday asked House budget-writers to resist any temptation to divert that money to help pay for other programs.

“It’s a bipartisan program. When it was started, there was enthusiastic bipartisan support for it,” state Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican who serves on LCHIP’s board, said during a meeting of the House Finance Committee division that oversees the program’s budget. “It has been the victim of raids, if you will, since then in order to balance the budget. I would submit to you that it does not deserve to be raided again.”

Hess is the deputy minority leader in the Democratic-led House. Hassan is a Democrat.

LCHIP was created in 2000 and provides grants to local governments and nonprofit groups to help fund conservation and historic-preservation projects. In 2011, its awards included $50,000 to help repair the Bow Bog Meeting House in Bow, $150,000 to help renovate the Colonial Theatre in Laconia and $50,000 to help conserve 410 acres of farmland and forest in Goffstown.

Since 2008, LCHIP has used a dedicated fund that collects money from fees charged at county deeds offices, as well as some money from conservation license plates (the so-called “moose plates”). But the money from registry fees has repeatedly been diverted to the state’s general fund in order to balance the budget.

Hess said $16 million in LCHIP money has gone to the general fund since 2008, versus $6 million that’s gone to LCHIP itself.

“Raiding LCHIP is dishonest. It is a bait-and-switch tactic. And it is disapproved by the people of this state,” Hess said.

LCHIP received $1.8 million in the state budget for the current biennium. Hassan has proposed more funding in the two fiscal years beginning July 1: $1.2 million in fiscal 2014 and $4.3 million in fiscal 2015.

In the proposed two-year budget she unveiled last month, Hassan does use $3 million from LCHIP in the first year of the biennium to help pay for general-fund spending.

Hess told the House budget-writing subcommittee yesterday that he and other supporters would like to see LCHIP fully funded in both years of the biennium but urged them to “embrace and adopt the governor’s proposal at the very least.”

That might not be easy.

Hassan’s budget relies on $80 million in revenue from a casino license, but the House has traditionally opposed proposals for expanded gambling and it’s not clear a casino bill will pass this year.

Rep. Bernard Benn, a Hanover Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, said yesterday that it looks like the panel has “probably at least $80 million that we’re going to have to take out of the governor’s budget.”

Hess pointed to a 2012 poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, taken on behalf of three environmental groups, that found 67 percent of voters strongly or somewhat disagreed with the statement, “The Legislature has to make hard choices in these tough times, and we just can’t afford to pay for land conservation right now.”

The poll of 505 likely voters had a 4.4 percent margin of error.

“We do have a major problem,” Benn said. “I think many of us truly support LCHIP. But we will see where it goes.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article imprecisely described the diversion of Land and Community Heritage Investment Program revenue. Money from registry fees has been diverted to the general fund in past state budgets, but money from conservation license plates has not, according to LCHIP Executive Director Dijit Taylor.

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