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Plan would take money from renewable energy fund, university system for DOT

Last modified: 3/27/2015 12:00:17 AM
House budget writers decided yesterday to take $50.8 million from the state’s renewable energy fund and millions more from the university system to help plug a hole in the state highway fund.

The House Finance Committee voted 14-9 along party lines – Republicans in favor and Democrats in opposition – to adopt a new budget plan that averts roughly $68 million in cuts that officials said would trigger hundreds of layoffs at the Department of Transportation and threaten road and bridge safety.

The new proposal would adequately fund the DOT and avoid those layoffs, said House Finance Committee Chairman Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican. It will be included in the committee’s state budget bill that comes up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House next week.

But the new plan did not win support among committee Democrats, who argued it will unfairly shift costs to municipalities and raid a dedicated fund meant to stimulate renewable energy development.

“They are basically suspending the work for two years,” said Concord Rep. Mary Jane Wallner.

Funding for the DOT has become a major sticking point among representatives during budget discussions.

The House Finance Committee finalized its spending proposal Tuesday. But members were forced back to the drawing board Wednesday when the House almost unanimously killed a bill cutting the highway fund by roughly $88 million after Republicans abandoned a plan to fill the hole by raising the gas tax.

The latest proposal announced yesterday will avoid most of those cuts by taking $50.8 million from the renewable energy fund, denying a budget increase to the University System of New Hampshire and reducing funding to municipal road repaving projects.

The renewable energy fund gives financial incentives to residents and businesses that install renewable energy technology – such as solar panels or wood pellet boilers. Utilities pay into the fund if they don’t buy a required number of renewable energy credits.

The $50.8 million cut will wipe out most of the fund’s balance over the next biennium and prevent investments in future projects, officials said.

“We went to a dedicated fund and made the judgment that in order to keep highways going, we had to go into that fund,” Kurk said Wednesday.

Senate Republicans have repeatedly spoken against dedicated fund raids.

The House Finance Committee proposal would maintain funding for USNH at the current level of $153 million over the biennium. At that level, it isn’t feasible for the universities to keep a tuition freeze in place for in-state students, said USNH Chancellor Todd Leach. Gov. Maggie Hassan recommended an increase of $28 million in funding over the biennium, which is still less than what the university system requested.

A portion of the 4-cent increase in the gas tax passed last year would now be diverted to cover DOT operational expenses, instead of being used to increase municipal block grants used to pave and resurface roads.

The new plan also sets a $750,000 cap on the amount of state funding school districts can lose under the House Finance Committee’s budget proposal.

Representatives voted earlier this week to decrease so-called stabilization grants, created three years ago to lessen the blow of funding formula changes that would have reduced districts’ state aid. The change would take effect in 2017, and would mean districts including Concord and Manchester could lose about $1 million.

Even under the new proposal, the DOT would still face a $20 million reduction. The plan calls for a $4.8 million cut in winter maintenance, a $12.6 million reduction in the mechanical services bureau used to purchase equipment and parts, and defunding state aid construction to the tune of $3.4 million.

DOT officials said they are still getting details to determine what the changes would mean.

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

Cloudy skies today. 
High 48, low 27. Seth 
Norris, 7, of Boscawen draws the day. B6


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