Capital Beat: Inside Sununu’s budget requests

Monitor staff
Published: 3/23/2019 5:06:56 PM

There’s an accepted process during New Hampshire’s budget season. The governor unveils the main ticket item, the recommended budget: 1,000-plus pages of line items and department totals. Then he or she releases the trailer bill, House Bill 2, the policy apparatus behind the budget that sets the governor’s priorities for the biennium.

And for years, Gov. Chris Sununu has bristled at that second process, chastising lawmakers and prior governors for using that second bill as a sandbox for pet projects, moonshots and unwarranted overhauls. There’s a time and place for that, Sununu has said, and it’s not in a budget bill.

This month, Sununu unvei led his own trailer bill – the second of his gubernatorial tenure. Short it is not. The sprawling 146-page bill is packed with budgetary and policy items alike, from tweaks to grand designs.

There’s the “Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan,” unveiled earlier this year with Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont. There are the specifications for the Secure Psychiatric Unit, the soon-to-be-designed extension of New Hampshire Hospital intended to take the place of the Secure Psychiatric Unit in the prison. There’s the legalization and regulation of sports betting, announced during Sununu’s budget address in February.

But there are also dozens of proposed policy tweaks, some big and some small, that have flown under the radar.

Here’s a sample of what the governor’s proposal would do, from the well-known items to the not-so-well-known.

It creates the framework for a longshot, bi-state paid family and medical leave program. Two months after unveiling a proposed opt-in paid family leave program with Vermont, the governor’s budget proposal includes the details of how it would work. Much of the proposal falls under what we know already: the state would cover the premiums for state employees to join the plan, and private companies could opt-in under a separate premium plan determined by the market.

One interesting detail: a self-imposed September deadline for requests for proposals from insurance companies offering plans for the program. Those proposals can’t be set until a union contract is signed; that means union approval will need to be in place by the time fall rolls around.

But with opposition so far from state employee unions in both Vermont and New Hampshire, not to mention an ongoing contract impasse in the Granite State, getting to the point when RFPs can even be issued may be a lost cause.

It sets the guidelines for a state-run secure psychiatric facility. A more bipartisan proposal in the governor’s proposal is the state-run psychiatric facility. Championed by state representative Renny Cushing for years, the plan would remove the Secure Psychiatric Unit from the men’s prison in Concord and relocate patients and care to a new facility on the grounds of N.H. Hospital. Sununu’s proposal doesn’t include concrete details, but it spells out the guidelines for the Department of Health and Human Services to follow.

The facility must accommodate 60 beds, and be supplemented by 40 transitional beds for patients “with complex behavioral health conditions.” HHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers has until June 2020 to complete the plans; the facility must be operational 12 months later.

It legalizes sports betting and sends the revenue to schools. Proudly announced in the governor’s budget address, the push to legalize sports betting has proven another bipartisan winner in the House so far, after that chamber voted across party lines for HB 480. Sununu’s plan would allow towns and cities to authorize the establishment of sports betting locations, which would be contracted through the state Lottery Commission. Both HB 480 and Sununu’s proposal would legalize online sports betting as well, with profits designated for funds for education.

It allows for the suspension of certain oversight over the state retirement program. Presently, the Department of Administrative Services is on the hook for making fixes after a series of audits in 2006, 2011 and 2014 into the state retirement program. Sununu’s budget would allow that department to suspend the audits’ recommendations if following them would be difficult “due to inadequate funding and staffing.”

DAS could also suspend compliance with two environmental executive orders issued by Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2016: one directing to implement energy efficiency projects, and another to monitor energy, gas and water usage in state buildings.

An official within the governor’s office stressed that the provisions would only allow the option for suspension, should the need arise. But as the state retirement health program is slowly amortized back to health, a break in oversight could raise questions.

It tightens regulations on public and commercial swimming pools. Deep in the budget proposal are three pages of regulations for commercial swimming pools, which would increase inspection fees and oversight over the construction and approval of pools. Currently, those constructing a pool need only pay a $100 fee to the Department of Environmental Services for registration and inspection. Under the new rules, that fee would increase based on the size of the pool, and there would be additional fees of up to the $2,500 under the Public Bathing Facility Fund to pay for self-inspections.

The trigger for all of this? Last year’s outbreak of Legionella in Hampton, which caused one death and 16 hospitalizations, according to the governor’s office.

It takes money from renewable energy projects and directs it to lead paint remediation. In a move that has had some Democrats and environmental activists livid, Sununu’s proposed budget would divert $2.5 million from the state’s renewable energy fund and divert it to lead paint remediation abatement fund. That fund would give low-income homeowners with children financial assistance with carrying out abatements for lead paint, which can cause serious health problems if ingested by children – replacing a system set up by Senate Bill 247 last year.

Sununu’s budget trailer bill also:

■Creates a new department for military and veterans affairs by merging existing departments under one roof.

■Eliminates payments for subpoenaed witnesses in criminal cases, including reimbursements for mileage and appearance.

■Taxes e-cigarettes the same way as tobacco cigarettes and adds that tax for vaping products with and without nicotine.

■Sets up a $10 million victim’s recovery fund for the FRM Ponzi scheme, available so long as victims give up their claim to damages against the state.

■Squeezes benefits for judicial retirees, making certain retirees work longer to get the maximum amount and capping the amount given to disabilities.

■Creates a scholarship program through the community college system for those over 25 studying in a high-demand field.

What happens next? That’s entirely in the hands of the House Finance Committee, the gargantuan, three-headed body that splits the budget into thirds, modifies as it likes and stitches it back together. Each of the Divisions – I, II, and III – will be meeting near-daily this week to finalize their recommendations for both the budget trailer bill HB 2 and the budget itself.

What comes out and what stays in – and what proves most controversial – remains to be seen. But Democrats have been less vocally opposed to what is in the governor’s planned than to what is not in it.

Expect to see major appropriations added in for increases to the Medicaid reimbursement rate, funding for per pupil state support to schools and faster increases in staffing at the Division for Children, Youth and Families. The rest comes down to the governor’s veto pen.

Whatever happens, with 146 pages to wade through, keeping track of the minute policy changes will be no easy task.

Correction: Gov. Sununu’s proposed new psychiatric hospital will be located on the grounds of New Hampshire hospital in a separate facility. An earlier version of this article misstated this point. 

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