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House Finance Committee briefs lawmakers on budget

Associated Press
Published: 4/9/2019 5:08:40 PM

House lawmakers had praise and questions Tuesday for a two-year, $12.9 billion budget that they will vote on later this week.

Democratic House leaders said the proposal focuses on providing property tax relief to towns and cities, boosting education aid and “frontloading” the state’s child protection and mental health systems to prevent more serious problems in the future. The budget comes up for a vote Thursday.

The House Finance Committee walked lawmakers through the proposal, which is slightly smaller than Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget of $13.1 billion. When only state funds are considered, it would actually spend about $500 million more.

Some of the most significant changes the House Finance Committee made to Sununu’s plan involve education.

Sununu proposed using $64 million in surplus money for school building projects in property-poor communities, while the House proposal would restore so-called stabilization grants to schools and adjust the formula used to distribute education money to benefit towns and cities with lower property values and a larger percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That would amount to about an increase of $160 million in state aid over two years and would be paid for largely by extending the 5 percent interest and dividends tax to cover capital gains.

A moratorium on state funding of school building projects expires in June, and the House proposal would provide an additional $19.3 million for such projects. The House budget also calls for increasing the state’s “rainy day fund” to $11.7 million.

Rep. Michael Cahill, D-Newmarket, asked why the budget doesn’t include retroactive aid for communities that completed projects during the moratorium.

“It’s been raining in Newmarket for a few years now, and I’d like to see something done for the towns that had to go ahead and do something and couldn’t wait,” he said.

Rep. Latha Mangipudi, D-Nashua, said she was glad to see money allocated for suicide prevention and early intervention programs but questioned whether the state would be spending enough to get all available federal matching funds. She also asked why the proposal didn’t include the funding Sununu wants to build a new 60-bed facility for people who need a secure psychiatric unit and are now held at the state prison.

Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, repeated the committee’s conclusion that more planning should be done before committing to a new building, and noted that members focused on other important areas, such as transitional beds for people ready to leave inpatient treatment but not well enough to return home.

“A 60-bed hospital might not be what we need in two years after all these other programs go into effect,” she said.

Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, thanked the committee for crafting an “incredibly comprehensive” budget. But she questioned why the committee removed $500,000 Sununu had earmarked for a task force devoted to internet crimes against children, saying its work has led to 30 arrests since July.

Committee members said they relied on recommendations from state agencies, and that the attorney general’s office did not list the task force as a priority.

Jane Young, deputy attorney general, said the office’s priorities were a cold case attorney and an elections unit attorney.

Hours after the budget briefing, Sununu held a news conference with police officers in Nashua to emphasize his commitment to the program.

“It is appalling that the Democrats on the House Finance Committee voted to strip funding for the Internet Crimes Against Children Fund,” he said in an emailed statement. “This should not be a political issue, and the Democrats are putting politics over the safety of our children. The Legislature must fix this immediately.”

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