By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate Finance Committee proposed a budget that would spend $13.5 billion in total funds in the next biennium and $5.4 billion in general funds.
The committee’s proposed budget would add to the state’s rainy day fund bringing the total to $155.2 million at the end of the 2022-2023 biennium, and restore revenue sharing of rooms and meals receipts with city and towns.
The two-bill budget passed Friday along party lines, 5-2, and will come before the full Senate Thursday.
Under the Senate plan, $187 million, about $50 million in new money, will go into a dedicated fund for municipal revenue sharing over the biennium.
Revenue sharing was suspended during the great recession, and Democrats added $40 million for cities and towns in the current budget, but the program remains suspended.
The Senate budget also accounts for revenue loss from Senate Bill 3, which would exempt Paycheck Protection Program forgiven loans, or grants, from business profits tax liability, reducing revenues by an estimated $56 million during the biennium and $99 million over the next four years.
The Senate budget plan also transfers $50 million in general fund money into the Highway Fund, which chronically produces less money than needed to pay for the operating and construction expenses it supports.
The Senate budget also increases state and federal funding for county nursing homes to avoid more county obligations which are funded through local property taxes.
The budget also cuts the rates for the business, rooms and meals and interest and dividends taxes, and begins phasing out the interest and dividends taxes in the second year of the biennium.
The reductions lower revenues an estimated $65.5 million over the biennium, committee member Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said will not be available for needed services now and into the future, while Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, noted tax cuts have been a Republican priority.
The Senate budget also restores the state’s share of water grants to communities that was eliminated by the House and eliminates a $50 million back-of-the-budget cut over the biennium for the Department of Health and Human Services, but does not restore all of the more than 200 positions eliminated in the House budget.
The Senate plan spends less money on public education than the previous budget, eliminating the disparity aid program to help property poor communities with larger numbers of lower-income families.
Rosenwald said one of her chief concerns is the underfunding of public education in the budget, noting the one-time $100 million cut in the statewide property tax will increase property taxes in the future.
She said the tax cuts help the businesses and individuals who are successful, not those that need help.
But Morse said the Senate budget will send millions of dollars in additional money back to communities.
“Building budgets is never never easy,” he said, noting the committee listened to department heads and the public in crafting its plan.
“This budget is fiscally conservative, built on reliable revenue numbers,” Morse said, “and keeps the promises Republicans made when we laid out our agenda back in January.”
“This budget underfunds public education, underfunds homeless shelter services, and underfunds support services for our most vulnerable children and families while giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy and large out-of-state corporations,” said Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, D-Manchester. “House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 are not representative of the people of New Hampshire, and I am extremely disappointed that the wellbeing of most Granite Staters was ignored in order to push an extreme partisan agenda.”
During the finance committee meeting Friday, Democrats raised concerns about policy issues included in the budget including the “education savings accounts” or vouchers, which will give the equivalent of per-student state adequacy education aid — between $5,000 and $8,000 — to parents to spend on private, religious, homeschooling or alternative education programs for their child.
Rosenwald said the program could cost the state about $60 million, but Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said the cost will be nominal during the biennium.
“What is not nominal is the fact that people of modest means will have more choices to send their kids to school,” he said. “If the pandemic has shown us anything it is that kids need better opportunities to thrive.”
The program would be one of the most expansive in the country and critics say it would be one of the least accountable.
The House Education Committee retained a nearly identical bill to better refine the program.
Democrats were also concerned about a provision to prohibit abortions after the first 24 weeks of pregnancy with no exception for fetal health, rape or incest, while making it a crime for a physician to perform an abortion after the deadline, and the alternative version of the divisive concept provision the House included in the budget.
Democrats also raised concerns that homeless services are significantly underfunded when it is a growing problem, particularly for the state’s largest cities, and other concerns about public safety
The Senate budget does not address the merger of the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire as proposed by Gov. Chris Sununu.
The House budget slowed down the process and established a commission to study the merger with $1.5 million to help fund the work.
The Senate removed both the commission and the funding from its budget.
The Senate plan spends less in total money than the House and governor’s budget proposals, but more in general funds and uses surplus money from the current biennium to fund a number of items.
The finance committee will host a budget briefing for Senators at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Representatives Hall.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.