By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — House budget writers presented their proposed $13.67 billion biennial operating budget to their colleagues on Monday.
The two-year budget plan would spend $5.42 billion in state general and education trust funds, a 1.4 percent decrease from the current operating budget that ends June 30.
“I hope you support this budget. We worked hard,” said House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston. “We think it is balanced and it will fulfill the needs of the people of our state.”
The budget briefing had about 60 members of the legislature and public watching although the link published in the House calendar did not work.
Members of the committee began the briefing without many members of the public able to access the meeting, although members were able to connect via Zoom instead of the YouTube connection for the public.
The House Minority Office emailed the correct link 20 minutes after the briefing began, not the Majority or Speaker’s Office.
The budget package also contains several controversial amendments to try to entice more Republican members to support the package that is not likely to have any Democratic support.
The amendments include prohibiting “divisive concepts related to sex and race in (schools or) state contracts, grants, and training programs,” allowing charity betting on historic horse racing, requiring legislative approval of states of emergencies beyond the first 21-day declaration, and essentially prohibiting Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and others from providing family planning and other health care services unless they can physically and financially separate abortion procedures from other services.
Another provision in the budget would return fines to business owners who did not follow public health guidelines instituted to slow the pandemic.
The House will vote on the two-bill budget package Wednesday when it meets at 9 a.m. at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford for the first of three session days to complete its work on its bills before the crossover deadline Friday.
The proposed budget would reduce the money the state sends to cities, towns and school districts by $129 million from the current budget. The governor’s proposed budget would reduce state aid by $125 million.
The biggest reductions are from one-time disparity aid for poor school districts of $62.5 million, $40 million in revenue sharing and between $16 million and $17 million in pollution control grants.
During the current biennium, the state provided a total of $2.433 billion in aid to towns, cities and schools, while Sununu proposed $2.308 billion and the House $2.304 billion.
Most of the half dozen questions finance committee division chairs and Weyler fielded were about very specific sections of the budget that includes about $73 million in across-the-board cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, including $22.6 million in positions.
Division III Chair Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said the department’s current budget increased 17.4 percent over the previous biennium and that is unsustainable.
The budget his division proposed is a 3.7 percent increase, he said, “but we bent the cost curve down dramatically.”
The compounded growth over the 2018-19 fiscal year budget is 4.9 percent, Edwards said, “but is still unsustainable, but a good start in one budget.”
He defended the across-the-board cuts saying his division has confidence in the agency’s leadership to make the right decisions and the reduction in personnel will allow the agency to grow its current workforce by 13 percent.
Edwards also highlighted the money the division added to nursing home services which the state shares with counties.
He said the governor’s budget would have increased the counties’ cost by 18 percent which would have increased the counties’ property tax portion by 7 percent.
Edwards said the division included enough money so the increase to counties is 2 percent not the usual 3 percent increase cap.
“That’s a hidden property tax (benefit) the legislature should claim credit for,” Edwards said.
The division added $29.1 million to the budget to reduce the counties’ share of nursing home costs.
The division is also recommending the state close the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester after the next fiscal year and relocate the young people to either community services or other residential facilities.
The change is expected to save the state $12 million the second year of the biennium.
Edwards noted the center was built to hold 144 young people but the current population is between 10 and 16 kids, and it has a 60 percent recidivism rate.
“It’s expensive and not effective,” he said, “and we need to change what we are doing.”
The center is also in the middle of a lawsuit over physical and sexual abuse by workers. State police and the Attorney General’s Office are investigating as well.
The budget also cuts tax rates for business taxes, the rooms and meals tax and reduces and phases out the interest and dividends tax. The budget also raises the threshold for having to pay the business enterprise tax and has a one-time reduction of $100 million in the statewide education property tax.
The budget slows down the merger of the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire proposed by Sununu, retaining separate boards of trustees and budgets for the two higher education systems for the biennium and adds $11 million to what the governor proposed to level fund the institutions for the next two years.
Division II also increased funding over what the governor proposed or failed to fund for the dual enrollment program for high school juniors and seniors to attend community college courses for credit, the robotics program for high school students and increased school building support and special education catastrophic aid to school districts.
Charter schools are fully funded at $97 million for the biennium in the budget.
One question the budget writers received concerned their plan to change the Liquor Commission’s Enforcement Division to the Licensing and Education Division. Under the plan, which is projected to save more than $2 million, the enforcement positions will end Dec. 31, giving officers six months to find other law enforcement work.
Rep. Michael Cahill, D-Newmarket, asked who would be inspecting the thousands of establishments selling liquor or cigarettes if the division is changed.
Division I Chair Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said a great deal of the current staff will be retained, noting they are removing the ones acting as police officers not the inspectors.
Weyler said in a 300-page audit of the division, the 21 people who do the inspections were doing only about half of what they should have and were instead doing other activities.
“That is why we made the change,” he said.
The division also returned money to the corrections system for its education and training programs that the governor removed in his budget and also money for two halfway houses he did not fund.
The division also made several changes in the governor’s plan to create a new Department of Energy combining the Public Utilities Commission, the Site Evaluation Committee, and several sections of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.