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House budget panel may cut university funding, protect money for mental health and community colleges

Last modified: 5/13/2013 10:07:55 AM
The House Finance Committee isn’t counting on $80 million in revenue from a casino license. That means the panel needs to pare down Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed two-year state budget, and it’s looking at cuts to funding for, among other things, the University System of New Hampshire, public charter schools and Medicaid providers.

The budget-writing committee yesterday reviewed tens of millions of dollars in proposed cuts. But some of Hassan’s budget priorities weren’t on the chopping block: community colleges, mental health services and the state’s waiting list for adults with developmental disabilities who need services.

For now, House budget writers are looking to protect that money.

“I don’t know anybody in the state who doesn’t think our mental health system needs serious work. . . . We’ve been falling farther and farther behind,” said Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat and the committee’s vice chairwoman. “So we felt that the budget as presented by Gov. Hassan made a major commitment in terms of investing in our community mental health services. And those are my values, too.”

The committee heard presentations yesterday from its three subcommittees outlining proposed cuts and other changes to the budget that Hassan, a Democrat, presented last month for the biennium that begins July 1.

Nothing is final, and more proposed changes are coming. The Finance Committee will meet again today and tomorrow, while the House Public Works and Highways Committee works on the separate state capital budget for the next two years.

The full House is expected to debate and vote on the budget next week.

No casino cash

On Feb. 14, Hassan presented a budget to the Legislature that called for a 10.2 percent increase in state spending in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 compared with the current biennium, and a 7.1 percent increase in general-fund spending.

Since then, the House Finance Committee’s three subcommittees, called divisions, have been going through the budget and making tentative changes. One goal: identify tens of millions of dollars in cuts.

Why? A bill that would allow a single casino in the state has passed the Senate, but the House has traditionally been hostile to proposals for expanded gambling. Hassan’s budget counted on $80 million from a casino license e_SEnD revenue that the House Finance Committee isn’t looking to include in its budget.

“I think it’s the prudent approach at this point,” Rosenwald said yesterday. “We don’t have a House position at this point, and I think it’s really uncertain.”

In addition, the Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee has adopted less optimistic baseline revenue estimates for the next biennium than the numbers in Hassan’s budget proposal.

The House is on track to diverge from Hassan’s budget on other taxes and fees, as well.

Hassan proposed a 30-cent increase in the cigarette tax, but the House last week passed a bill for a 20-cent increase. Hassan proposed raising three saltwater-fishing license fees, but the House Finance Committee is looking at raising only one.

One of the Finance Committee’s divisions has also recommended raising the fee for a marriage license by $5, to $50, to raise an additional $80,000 for domestic violence programs.

Funding flat or increased

The Finance Committee yesterday spent more than three hours hearing its divisions’ recommendations for the budget.

Some areas of Hassan’s budget are pretty much untouched: $28 million more over the biennium for mental health services, an increase in funding for the Community College System of New Hampshire, money to fund the waiting list of adults with developmental disabilities or brain injuries who require services.

Other areas could get more money. Division I recommended $1.9 million more over the next biennium for the Department of Environmental Services’ local grant program. That would fully fund a list of delayed and deferred local infrastructure projects for drinking water and landfill closures, in addition to funding for wastewater treatment projects that was included in Hassan’s budget.

“I think all of us on the division felt the state made a commitment to these communities,” said Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat who chairs the division.

Division II – chaired by Rep. Dan Eaton, a Stoddard Democrat – recommended spending $175,000 on a new mini fire pumper truck for firefighter training and $200,000 on a new evidence van for the state police’s Major Crime Unit, which investigates homicides in the state.

Eaton said the unit has two vans, but one is “essentially a converted old ice cream truck” that can no longer pass state inspection.

Cuts on the table

But even with some increases in funding, the recommendations presented yesterday by the three divisions add up to roughly $61 million in cuts to general-fund spending.

LCHIP, which provides grants for preservation and conservation projects, would be fully funded at $4 million in the second year of Hassan’s budget. Division I proposed cutting that in half, to $2 million.

Hassan proposed sending $165 million to the university system over the next two years, an increase of about $59.4 million from the current biennium. Division II proposed cutting that funding by $12 million.

Division II also proposed cutting $3.1 million from the betterment program, which pays for repaving state roads, and $7.2 million from the state building aid program for school districts, which would continue a moratorium on state aid for new construction projects.

And Division II recommended cutting Hassan’s proposed increase in funding for charter schools, which would have allowed four new schools to open and existing schools to increase enrollment. Instead, the division proposed a two-year moratorium on new charter schools; a de facto moratorium was declared last September by the State Board of Education, which expressed concern about the availability of future funding.

The biggest proposed cuts are from the Department of Health and Human Services, the single largest state agency. Rosenwald, who chairs Division III, said the subcommittee looked at current caseloads for social services and adjusted estimates downward for the next two years.

“Through doing that, we were able to find nearly $10 million of budget efficiencies in general funds,” she told the committee.

The division also proposed cutting provider payments under the Medicaid Enhancement Tax by $12.6 million, among other cuts.

The divisions also proposed several bottom-line reductions in departmental budgets, with the agencies left to decide the specific cuts: $2.5 million from the Legislature’s budget, $1.5 million from the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton and $1.25 million from the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.

The Finance Committee will meet again today starting at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Office Building, Room 210-211.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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