Senate approves $11.8B spending plan in 10-hour marathon session

Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In a party-line vote, the Republican-led Senate approved an $11.8 billion state budget after blocking all attempts by Democrats to boost spending for mental health services, the university system and child protection.

Despite a marathon 10-hour session that lasted until after 11 p.m. Wednesday, the spending blueprint changed little from the original plan put forward by Senate budget writers.

The two-year budget heads to the Republican-led House next, where some conservatives are already threatening to oppose it because they say it‘ spends too much. The lower chamber is expected to request a committee of conference with the Senate to try to work out a compromise.

The budget would expand psychiatric treatment beds, begin a new student scholarship program and continue to cut the state’s business taxes. 

Democrats argued that the plan falls short in funding critical social services, but Republicans said it takes major steps to address crises in mental health and child protection without raising taxes or fees.

“We find ourselves doing as much as we can while protecting taxpayers and growing our economy,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said. “There are things on here we will need to consider how we fund them, but today let’s focus on the good work we have done.”

Debate was drawn out over hours as Republicans rejected more than two dozen amendments put forward by Democrats. The minority party argued that the state can afford to spend an additional $45 million because the budget’s revenue estimates are too low.

“This is a political budget that appeals to the wealthiest 1 percent of our state and the extreme 5 percent of the House of Representatives,” Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn said.

Republicans, however, stood firm against any added expenditures and rejected Democrats’ proposals to fund child protection services, add nurses to New Hampshire Hospital, increase funding for the university system and hire additional staff to guard the new women’s prison in Concord.

Some GOP senators defected on a few issues, though there were never enough to sway the outcome.

In one of the closest votes, Republican Sens. Andy Sanborn and Ruth Ward joined Democrats to try to roll back proposed health care premium increases for state retirees. Still, the amendment failed, 12-11.

In another close vote, two Republicans joined in on a Democratic amendment that would have halted annual cuts to education grants given out to local school districts.

One of the biggest fights centered on business tax cuts, which Democrats attempted to repeal. The cuts would take effect in 2020 and are projected to reduce future state revenues by upward of $100 million, according to the fiscal note. Republicans said the cuts will spur economic growth and give relief to business owners, but Democrats countered that the changes would benefit only a few and curb future spending.

The fiercest debate erupted over abortion policy, especially when it came to a Republican amendment meant to block state and federal funds from going to clinics that offer abortion services.

“This is about controlling women’s health choices, plain and simple, and this is about merging church and state,” Democrat Martha Hennessy of Hanover said.

In response, Sen. Kevin Avard, a Nashua Republican, yelled, “Forcing people to violate their conscience with their tax dollars, that is hateful. I challenge anyone in here to tell me in any constitution where I am forced to pay for somebody’s abortion, show it to me.”

The amendment failed, 17-6. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to strip language from the budget that would block the use of state grants to fund abortions. Republicans said the change simply codifies what is already happening in practice, but Hennessy contended the change was an attack on her rights.

“Could you imagine the men in this room if we snuck in some amendment about how the government shouldn’t pay for Viagra?” Hennessey said.

The budget would put millions of new dollars toward mental health services and child protection reforms, thought Democrats said the spending isn’t enough.

The plan would spend nearly $20 million to add 68 additional mental health treatment beds at a time when patients are often forced to wait days or weeks in emergency rooms for space to open at the state psychiatric hospital.

The budget also funds another mobile crisis unit, meant to treat psychiatric patients in their own homes.

Democrats pushed unsuccessfully to add nine nurses at New Hampshire Hospital in Concord and launch additional services for children with mental illness.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com)