House panel trims $57.7 million from Hassan’s state budget, sends 2-year plan to floor
The Democratic majority on the House Finance Committee last night approved a state budget plan that trims $57.7 million in general-fund spending from Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed two-year budget and eliminates revenue from casino gambling.
The proposed budget passed over the objections of the panel’s Republican minority, and will go to the House floor next week.
“We have, as a committee, worked very hard to develop this proposed budget. . . . I view it as a rebuilding budget, as our economy continues to recover,” said Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and the committee’s vice chairwoman. She said the budget strengthens the state’s social safety net and invests in higher education.
But Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare, the senior Republican on the committee, said he fears the budget relies on overly optimistic revenue projections and does little to help the state’s economy.
“Although this budget is balanced on paper, it is balanced in ways that create a number of problems. . . . I applaud what the majority has tried to do. I am so sorry they were unable to do it in a way that would not have the adverse impacts it will,” Kurk said.
The committee, on a pair of 14-8 votes last night, finalized its versions of House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, the two pieces of legislation that comprise the state’s operating budget for the two fiscal years that begin July 1.
The votes split along party lines, with Democrats in the majority and Republicans in the minority. The only exception was Kurk, who said he voted with the Democrats for technical reasons, so he could serve on the committee of the conference in June that will hammer out differences between the House and Senate budgets.
Hassan, a Democrat, on Feb. 14 presented the Legislature with a proposed budget that increased general-fund spending by 7.1 percent and total state spending by 10.2 percent, compared with the current biennium.
Her budget relied in part on $80 million in revenue from a casino license. A bill to allow such a casino in New Hampshire has passed the Senate but has not yet come to a vote in the House, which in the past has opposed proposals for expanded gambling.
The House Finance Committee stripped that money from the budget, though the blow was softened with other revenue, including money expected from an upcoming tobacco wlawsuit settlement.
In all, the House committee’s budget contains about $2.6 billion in general-fund spending for the next biennium, $57.7 million or 2.1 percent less than Hassan’s budget. The panel’s budget is projected to end the next biennium with a $2.5 million surplus.
Among the cuts made by the House committee were
$12 million less in aid for the University System of New Hampshire, lower payments to hospitals for uncompensated care and cuts to funding for charter schools and local school building aid.
The committee didn’t remove extra funding proposed by Hassan for the state’s community colleges, mental health programs and services for adults with developmental disabilities.
The House panel’s proposed budget also includes a 30-cent hike in the cigarette tax that was proposed by Hassan, and $5 increases in fees for marriage licenses and saltwater fishing licenses.
The panel also voted last night, 13-9 along party lines, to add a 12-cent increase in the gas tax to the budget.
The same tax hike, spread over three years for gasoline and six years for diesel fuel,
had passed the full House earlier in the day as a separate bill.
“This is just belt-and-suspenders,” said Rep. Dan Eaton, a Stoddard Democrat.
The panel’s Republicans, led by Kurk, made last-ditch attempts to strip out or change parts of the budget they didn’t like, including the cigarette tax hike and a moratorium on new charter schools. But all five amendments were defeated on party-line votes, 13-9.
Reaction, the road ahead
In a statement last night, Hassan thanked the House committee for its work but continued to argue that expanded gambling – in the form of a single casino – should be used to help fund state government.
“It is clear that the $80 million from licensing one casino is needed to improve upon the hard work of the Finance Committee and restore critical funds for our university system in order to freeze tuition, for uncompensated care at New Hampshire’s hospitals and for aid to local communities,” Hassan said.
The full House is scheduled to meet Wednesday to debate and vote on the budget.
The House Republican caucus is gearing up for a fight. Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, said in a statement the Democrats “created a budget that overspends, expands government and adds taxes and fees on our already over taxed families and businesses.”
Once the budget passes the Democratic-led House, it will go to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 majority.
The Senate is expected to finalize its version of the budget by June 6. Assuming the House and Senate budgets are different, the two chambers will then appoint negotiators to hammer out a compromise budget.
“As the budget advances, I look forward to working with members of both the House and Senate to finalize a balanced plan that protects the basic services that support the overall well-being of our families and that invests in the priorities needed to build a more innovative economic future,” Hassan said last night.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
email@example.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)