N.H. House panel cuts from, adds to and tweaks two-year state budget
The House Finance Committee made progress yesterday in assembling its version of the next state budget, with sharp splits between the panel’s Democratic majority and Republican minority on a number of issues including a moratorium on new charter schools and funding for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program.
On the second day of a three-day process, the committee tentatively approved a number of cuts to funding that had been included in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget, including $12 million less in aid to the University System of New Hampshire.
No final vote was taken. The committee will meet again today to make any last-minute changes and finalize House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, the two pieces of legislation that make up the state’s operating budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
The House, where Democrats hold the majority, will debate and vote on the budget next week, then send it on to the Republican-led Senate. The next biennium begins July 1.
Over the course of nearly seven hours yesterday, the House Finance Committee took roughly three dozen votes. A little more than half fell on or largely along party lines, with Democrats in the majority and Republicans in the minority.
The committee accepted all of the recommendations from its three subcommittees, called divisions, that had been presented Monday. Those changes to the budget as proposed by Hassan, a Democrat, included tens of millions of dollars in cuts, in large part because the House’s budget doesn’t include $80 million in revenue from a casino license that was used to balance Hassan’s budget.
(A bill that would allow such a casino has passed the Senate and is supported by Hassan, but the House in the past has opposed proposals for expanded gambling.)
Among the cuts okayed yesterday:
∎ Hassan had proposed increased funding for the university system; the House panel reduced that increased aid by $12 million over the biennium.
∎ A $2.5 million cut to the Legislature’s budget, a $1.5 million cut to the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton and a $1.25 million cut to the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.
∎ Cuts to school building aid, with a moratorium on state aid for new projects.
∎ Reduced spending on Department of Health and Human Services programs due to an expected reduction in case loads.
The committee didn’t make major changes to Hassan’s proposals to increase funding for mental-health services, the state’s community colleges and services for adults with developmental disabilities and brain injuries.
With the changes recommended by the three divisions, the House’s tentative budget was projected to end the biennium with a $8.6 million surplus, said Jeffry Pattison, the nonpartisan legislative budget assistant.
Adding back money
In a few areas, the panel then voted to add back some money.
The committee voted to cut payments to hospitals for uncompensated care by $36.9 million, but then voted, 15-7, to add back $4 million. Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, said the increase could help convince hospitals to sign on to the state’s plan to implement a managed care system for Medicaid, “and I hope this will help us get there.”
LCHIP, which provides grants for local conservation and preservation projects, had been slated to get about $5 million in Hassan’s budget. The committee’s Division I had recommended cutting $2 million, but the committee voted yesterday to add back that money so the program remains funded at the same level for the biennium.
That vote fell along party lines, 14-9, with several GOP members saying they like LCHIP but didn’t consider it a top priority.
Republicans also fought, unsuccessfully, to block several proposed cuts, including a reduction in school building aid and reduced state aid for public charter schools.
Hassan had increased funding for charter schools in her budget, to allow four new schools to open and existing schools to increase enrollment. The committee voted, 14-8, along party lines, to slash that funding and bar new charter schools from opening.
“This is wrong, to take this money away,” said Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican.
But Rep. Susan Ford, an Easton Democrat, said money was tight and cuts had to be made.
“It would be very nice to fund the charter schools. . . . It’s a revenue issue, not a philosophical issue,” she said.
No wind moratorium
The committee also rejected an attempt to attach a moratorium on new electrical transmission lines or wind turbines to the budget, on an 18-6 vote.
The amendment, offered by Ford and Republican Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare, would have blocked the Northern Pass project and any new wind farms until the state issued a new comprehensive energy plan.
Ford said the moratorium is needed so the state can explore the financial implications of those projects, including the possibility that the state could collect revenue from buried Northern Pass lines along Interstate 93. (The $1.2 billion project to import hydropower from Quebec has instead proposed transmission lines on towers.)
But other members argued the budget wasn’t the place for such a policy statement, and that a broad moratorium went too far.
“I support what you’re trying to do for the North Country, but I think this is too broadly written,” Weyler said.
Fees, taxes, surplus
Other than dropping the $80 million in revenue expected from a casino license, the House Finance Committee has made few changes to the tax and fee proposals in Hassan’s budget.
Hassan proposed a 30-cent increase in the cigarette tax, while the House last week passed a bill calling for a 20-cent increase. As of yesterday, the House budget still included the 30-cent hike, plus an increase in the tax rate on non-cigarette tobacco products.
The budget also increases the fee for an individual saltwater fishing license, from $10 to $15, and increases the fee for a marriage license from $45 to $50. That latter increase, committee members said, will bring in an estimated $80,000 more for domestic violence programs.
The committee yesterday also adopted a wish list of sorts, a plan to distribute any surplus money from the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years. Under the plan, instead of going directly into the state’s rainy day fund, money would first go to uncompensated-care payments, state universities and the school building aid program.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)