State budget talks continue late into night; no deal yet on Medicaid expansion
People listened outside a packed room as Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, announces that negotiators were still in a stalemate as of Wednesday evening, June 19, 2013 while the commitee of conference on the budget met in the Legislative Office Building.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
A camera set up to videotape the Committees of Conference sits in a corner of the room in the Legislative Office Building in Concord; Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, is interviewed after an announcement that negotiators were still in a stalemate as Rep. Dan Eaton, a Democrat from Stoddard, looks on in a hallway at the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday evening, June 19, 2013.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
The Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate began making progress last night in negotiations over the state budget, though no resolution had been reached on the critical issue of Medicaid expansion.
There was little visible progress for much of the day, and tensions rose late last night. At one point, Sen. Chuck Morse led a brief walkout of Senate negotiators from the budget talks after complaining that House Democrats were holding up the process.
“The reality is, we have a budget with 40 sections that needed to be reviewed. Those 40 sections will take hours, with amendments to fix them. . . . We’re stalling about nothing,” said Morse, a Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
But Morse and the other senators soon returned to the table, and at press time last night the negotiators from both chambers were still working their way through the budget.
“This is a long and hard process,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee. “But we are committed to reaching an agreement on the budget that meets the needs of our citizens in our state.”
The House Democrats earlier in the day had offered a compromise on Medicaid expansion that would put off a vote by the Legislature on the issue until a special session in August. Twelve hours later, negotiators were apparently still working on the specifics of a plan, and no deal had been announced.
The deadline for the budget conference committee to complete its work is today.
If a compromise on the budget is reached, the House and Senate will vote on the two-year plan next week and send the budget to Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. The new biennium begins July 1.
If the talks deadlock and a new budget isn’t ready, the Legislature would have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the state government operating past midnight June 30.
Several key agreements were reached last night on budget items, including:
∎ A $7 million across-the-board cut to the Department of Health and Human Services.
∎ A reduced cut to the New Hampshire Veterans Home, $500,000 over the biennium instead of the planned $1.5 million.
∎ A reduced cut to the Department of Revenue Administration, $1.25 million over two years instead of $2 million.
But Wallner earlier in the day said a major sticking point – in addition to Medicaid expansion – was the Senate’s proposed cut to state personnel: a $50 million across-the-board cut, including $20 million in general fund savings.
Wallner said the House wants to replace that $20 million cut with a $20 million lapse, which would allow Hassan to find savings across all spending, not just in personnel costs that could involve layoffs.
“From the House’s side, the thing that we are grappling with and what we don’t understand is why the Senate is so insistent that the back of the budget cut come from personnel, as opposed to letting the governor have the opportunity to manage a reduction by using the lapse, the $20 million in lapse,” Wallner said. “She has said she is willing to work with that and not have a personnel reduction.”
Morse said the Senate would accept a $10 million lapse, which he described as a “responsible position.”
He noted the Senate had agreed to fund an additional $16.9 million in general-fund costs associated with late-arriving tentative contracts the state has struck with four unions, which would give state workers three cost-of-living raises over the next two years.
“We went to funding the raises before we addressed the back of the budget cut. Is that logical? Probably not. You would pay your debt first, before you gave someone a raise,” Morse said. “But the reality was, we were willing to compromise. We were willing to give the employees their raise, because we do value them.”
And Morse said the Senate wouldn’t entertain adopting the House’s revenue estimates, which come in $49.2 million higher for the next biennium than the Senate’s numbers.
“To go any further means we’re raising revenues, and the Senate is not going to agree to raising revenues,” Morse said.
There was no resolution on that issue last night at press time.
On Medicaid expansion, a potential compromise was under discussion yesterday.
Hassan and the House Democrats want to expand the program starting next year, but the Senate Republicans believe that more study is needed. Federal money would pay for 100 percent of the expansion’s cost through 2016 and at least 90 percent in future years.
The House negotiators offered the Senate a new deal yesterday morning, after the two sides had exchanged initial offers the previous day.
Under the House’s new proposal, a special study commission would work on the question of Medicaid expansion in July, followed by a special session of the Legislature in August, “after a quicker study than the Senate proposed,” said Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Finance Committee. “And that would allow for the Senate’s request that there be an up-or-down legislative vote.”
Rosenwald added, “The cost of the special session would be far less than the $1 million a day New Hampshire would lose by not expanding Medicaid quickly.”
The House had initially proposed an automatic expansion of the Medicaid program for three years and a vote in August by the Legislature’s 10-member Fiscal Committee, but conceded both points to the Senate.
But the Senate also wants a longer time line for the study. Its Tuesday proposal had the study commission completing its work by the end of the year, clearing the way for a vote by the Legislature sometime in 2014.
The Senate had not responded to the House’s latest offer by press time last night.
It seemed likely last night that negotiations would continue this morning on a final budget deal.
Budget negotiators spent nearly all of yesterday behind closed doors – between its scheduled 10 a.m. start time and 10 p.m., the committee of conference met in public for just an hour and a half.
In the afternoon, Hassan, Senate President Peter Bragdon and House Speaker Terie Norelli met privately to try to work out a deal. But shortly after 4:30 p.m., the House and Senate negotiators pronounced themselves at a stalemate.
Talks apparently continued behind closed doors, with the conference committee returning to the table just after 9 p.m. A few minutes after Morse and the other Senate negotiators walked out, they returned and talks continued past 10 p.m.
All committees of conference, including the budget talks, must complete their work today under Senate and House rules.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)