By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — House and Senate budget writers agreed on several controversial issues included in the next biennial budget package including a school voucher program and an abortion prohibition but put off deciding other controversies in House Bill 2.
The conferees did agree to fund water treatment grants, to increase revenue sharing with communities, to inject general fund money to stabilize Department of Transportation finances, to earmark $25 million for affordable housing and to provide $10 million to jilted investors of Financial Resource Mortgage, which was found guilty of bilking them for millions of dollars.
Budget writers did not make as quick work of House Bill 2 as it did of House Bill 1 Friday, as they work through the two-bill, $13.5 billion budget package.
Friday the conference committee on HB 1 agreed to the numbers in the proposed budget for the next biennium that begins July 1, but House Bill 2, with the needed statutory changes to correspond to the numbers and various other programs like vouchers, paid family and medical leave, and forbidding the teaching of “divisive concepts” did not move as quickly Monday.
The conference committee members spent about an hour dissecting specifics for the new Department of Energy and how it compares to current agency responsibilities, but had no discussion at all on a controversial voucher program called one of the most expansive in the country.
The Senate included the program that would allow state adequacy aid to be used for private and religious school tuition, home schooling or alternative education programs.
The House retained a nearly identical bill as its Education Committee continues refining the details.
The House and Senate also made quick work of a provision that would prohibit abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy with few exceptions and would make it a crime for a physician to perform the procedure.
The Senate did away with a House provision that would essentially ban Planned Parenthood or any other abortion service provider from holding other state health care contracts unless the abortion services are financially and physically separate. The two sides will continue discussing that issue.
They also put off future discussions about the Senate voluntary family and medical leave program touted by Gov. Chris Sununu, but removed by House budget writers.
And they also will discuss later adding more child protection workers. Discussion on that issue halted when House members wanted to ensure the additional workers would be included in the 3,000 cap on Department of Health and Human Services employees for the next biennium.
The budget writers also agreed to revisit Sununu’s proposed merger of the University System of New Hampshire with the Community College System of New Hampshire.
The House had slowed down the merger in its budget by creating a study commission rather than a merged board of trustees as the governor had proposed and kept the two systems’ finances separate for the next biennium.
The Senate removed any reference to the merger in its budget.
The conference committees must have a final report by Thursday.
Also, to be resolved later are a proposal to create a fund with federal COVID relief money to help live entertainment venues and other facilities, changes in the state gun line for background checks, establishing an adult Medicaid dental program, and implementing changes approved two years ago to business tax apportionment using the single sales factor.
The House agreed with the Senate plan to increase the amount of money from the rooms and meals tax that is allocated for revenue sharing with cities and towns.
Currently the target is 40 percent, but revenue sharing was suspended during the great recession.
The Senate plan would dedicate 30 percent of rooms and meals collections to a dedicated fund.
The plan would increase revenue sharing by about $35 million over the biennium.
Senate President Chuck Morse said the 30 percent is a figure the state can live up to and hopes someone next session increases the percentage to 40 percent.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said while she is not opposed to the plan, it does reduce the percentage from 40 to 30 percent.
And she noted, dedicated funds are frequently suspended by the legislature.
But Morse said the Senate budget plan increases money for municipalities by about $150 million over the biennium.
Business Tax Liability
The House also agreed to the Senate proposal to establish a commission to study ways to reduce the business profits tax credit carry forward which now is approaching $300 million.
The money comes from overpayment of taxes by corporations, and has grown rapidly, noted Rep. Norm Major, R-Plaistow, the chair of House Ways and Means.
He said just a few years ago the figure was $140 million, and added the current figure is “good percentage.” of business profits tax collections.
He said if the corporations asked for their money back it would mean a “big hole” in the state budget.
Morse said he would like the corporations to consider using some of their credits to create affordable housing for employees as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has proposed in Lebanon.
He said the corporations could help to address the affordable housing issue, not leave it all up to the state.
But he said the legislature will need to address the issue in greater detail next session.
“The legislature could apply housing credits,” he said, “and work with companies to bring down the $280 million in a manner that is good for New Hampshire.”
Highway Fund Aid
The House agreed with the Senate plan to put $50 million of general fund money into the Highway Fund, which will end the biennium with only about $1 million.
The fund not only pays for Department of Transportation operations, the Department of Safety, Attorney General’s Office and judicial system, and also taps the funds derived from fuel sales and vehicle registrations.
“The Highway Fund is broke,” said Morse.
The House also agreed to reimburse the federal highway fund $7 million for the scrapped Conway bypass project, and that will allow $29 million in federal funds to flow to the state.
And similarly, the House agreed to spend $7 million as a match to receive $20 million in federal transportation money. The state once used turnpike maintenance credits for the match, but can no longer do that.
Secure Psychiatric Unit
The House also agreed to the Senate plan to spend $30 million for a new secure psychiatric hospital on New Hampshire Hospital grounds.
Rosenwald was concerned the provision allows for a private contractor to run the facility.
But Morse said operations of the facility are still to be determined and would need legislative approval in the future. It is important to begin construction to help reduce the number of adults and children waiting in hospital emergency rooms for in-patient treatment at New Hampshire Hospital, he said.
The conference committee meets again at 1 p.m. Tuesday to continue discussing unresolved items.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.