By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House Finance Committee put the pieces of its budget plan together Monday, increasing funding to some programs while decreasing funding in others, and making significant changes to some of what Gov. Chris Sununu proposed in his biennial budget.
The current House budget plan will eliminate hundreds of positions in the Department of Health and Human Services to save $50 million over two years, add $11 million to level fund the university and community college systems, eliminate state water treatment grants, and use $100 million in general fund money to replace the same amount of money collected by statewide education property tax for one year.
In the course of their work, House budget writers slowed down the merger process for the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire, rearranged the governor’s proposal for a new Department of Energy, eliminated a student loan forgiveness program in order to retain the state’s low-income student scholarship program, and increased funding significantly to prevent millions of dollars in downshifting of county nursing home costs to property taxpayers.
Although one subcommittee included and refined the governor’s proposed paid family and medical leave program for state workers, the committee voted unanimously to remove it.
And they eliminated funding for the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester the second year of the biennium, saving more than $13 million in operating funds, but did add $2.5 million to the budget for transitioning residents to other facilities.
The budget package also included cuts in business tax rates and removed a change in apportionment of the Business Profits Tax that was approved two years ago.
The budget plan also includes a number of controversial policy items, such as prohibiting including “divisive concepts related to sex and race in state contracts, grants, and training programs,” allowing betting on historic horse racing, requiring legislative approval of states of emergencies beyond the first 21-day declaration, and essentially prohibiting family planning funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and other abortion care providers unless they can physically and financially separate abortion procedures from their other services.
Another provision in the budget would return fines to businesses who did not follow public health guidelines for the pandemic.
The committee also eliminated money from several areas such as mental health services for military personnel and safety and internet projects for schools and would replace it with federal money approved in the American Rescue Plan which will provide about $1.5 billion to the state and local governmental entities.
Most of the budget proposals from the House Finance Committee were approved down party lines. The committee will meet Wednesday to vote on the final amendments the Legislative Budget Assistant and Office of Legislative Services craft based on decisions made Monday. The LBA will determine final budget figures as well.
Sununu proposed a $13.8 billion operating budget, a 5.6 percent increase over the current budget ending June 30, and later suggested $70 million in additional spending in light of growing state revenues.
In general and educational fund spending, Sununu’s proposed budget would spend $5.45 billion, a $41 million decrease from the current spending plan.
Initial revenue estimates for the next two fiscal years were about $70 million lower than the governor’s but since then have been increased to above what the governor proposed in his plan.
Initially the committee faced cutting tens of millions of dollars from the governor’s proposal, but increasing revenue estimates have tempered the reductions.
The governor’s budget would have several agencies facing significant layoffs, said House Finance Committee Vice Chair Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, with three agencies hit “very badly” including the Department of Health and Human Services.
Another agency facing significant layoffs was the Department of Administrative Services and Ober said her division, Division I was able to restore 20 positions to the critical agency that provides central services to all state agencies and manages the state’s self insurance programs, and retain four of the eight positions in the Department of Information Technology that staff the help desk.
The division freed up money by reducing the Governor’s Scholarship program to $1.
The reduction of 314 positions in the Department of Health and Human Services concerned former House Finance Committee Chair and now ranking Democrat, Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord.
Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, the Chair of Division III which reviews the health and human services budget, said the department has hundreds of vacancies it cannot fill as it competes with counties and the private sector for a limited number of health care workers.
He said they should look at the number of people the department employed in March 2020, which was 2,651 employees, compared to the 3,000 approved in the amendment.
Sununu’s budget did not fund 88 of the 3,226 authorized positions in the department and closing the Sununu center eliminates another 96 positions bringing the number to 3,042, Edwards said.
He said with 3,000 positions for the department, and 350 current vacancies, the agency could fill 88 percent of the vacancies without hitting the cap.
Edwards said the division believes the priority should be hands on employees who work directly with patients, not managers or specialists.
Wallner noted cutting $50 million in positions over two years will eliminate $50 million in matching federal money making the reduction $100 million.
Wallner said many of the people affected work with the elderly, in the public health lab, or provide a vast array of services.
“It really bothers me that there are few reductions in the other divisions,” Wallner said, “yet there are millions of reductions in (health and human services.)”
Edwards said the department’s budget grew 18 percent in the last budget and that is not sustainable and more than state taxpayers can support.
“If you look at the previous budget and the current budget and this one, you will see steady growth year to year to year,” Edwards said. “This is a reasonable plan at a sustainable rate. You cannot ask the taxpayers of the state to pay more coming out of the pandemic with businesses and homes trying to reestablish themselves.”
Long time committee member Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, noted the 96 positions at the Sununu Center should not be included in the reduced authorized position because the language on closing the facility requires the state to retain or retrain those workers. She also asked for clarification about $50,000 intended to encourage competition for providers of family planning services.
Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, was also concerned about the provision affecting reproductive health centers.
She said while Edwards said the change to family planning funding would not decrease health services for women, she disagreed.
Rogers said the Planned Parenthood amendment requiring the physical and financial separation of abortion procedures is an impossible standard to meet.
“These clinics are not wealthy,” Rogers said, “and this would require constructing or purchasing a separate building and that is probably impossible for most of them.”
She said the reality is the clinics will close or services will no longer be acceptable because of the provision, and that will be a disaster for women whether you are pro-life or pro-choice.
The finance committee’s history is to not decide policy, she said, but the committee is doing that now.
“We can all see what is going on,” Rogers said, “and I will not support the dismantling of health and human services.”
She said the department will be unable to perform the duties the Legislature has said they have to perform.
“This budget was put together by the rightwing of the Republican Party,” Nordgren said. “I can’t remember a time in my history we’ve so blatantly announced that to everyone.”
Despite the disagreements, particularly over the health and human services budget, many committee members noted most of the budget changes had unanimous or near unanimous support, including most of the work in divisions I and II.
Division II chair Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, noted the agreement on changes to the governor’s merger proposal for higher education, and additional money for dual enrollment for high school juniors and seniors in community college classes for credit and for special education catastrophic aid for school districts.
Other division chairs noted similar cooperative work.
The committee presents a budget briefing for House members Monday and the House is expected to vote on the budget package April 7.
If passed, the Senate would then begin its budget work.
Four years ago, the House failed to approve its version of the budget when conservative Republicans refused to vote for the package. House leaders hope to avoid a similar fate this year, and added the provision requiring legislative approval of states of emergencies beyond the first 21-days in hopes of picking up enough votes.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.