By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — House budget writers are proposing a two-year operating budget about $130 million less than proposed by Gov. Chris Sununu two months ago. Sununu was quick to criticize it as “off the rails.”
In a series of 12-9 partisan votes Wednesday with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, the House Finance Committee approved its budget package — House Bills 1 and 2 — the full House will vote on next week during a three-day marathon at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford.
“The House budget process has gone completely off the rails,” Sununu said. “They passed a budget that is not fiscally balanced and packed with non-budgetary items that have no place in HB2. Nevertheless, we trust the Senate will do the right thing and pass a final budget that is fiscally sound while delivering tax cuts for the people of NH.”
Democrats were not happy, either.
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, ranking Democrat on the committee, said the budget bills passed by House Republicans underfund vital services, programs and positions throughout the state workforce and “included wide reaching and controversial policy matters that should have been worked out with public input in policy committees.”
“In the Department of Health and Human Services, Republicans added a $50 million back of the budget cut and unfunded 226 positions, further threatening to cripple critical services that are already underfunded and understaffed. They did not continue the $40 million in revenue sharing in the form of direct support to cities and towns across the state that was included in the Democrat’s budget last term. Republicans also added language directly targeted at closing family planning health care clinics by requiring burdensome physical separation from a reproductive health facility,” Wallner said.
“By underfunding education by $90 million, the budget also does not address the pandemic-related losses to school budgets which will have a direct impact on increasing local property taxes and on the quality of our children’s education,” she said.
While budget spending is very similar, the House made some significant changes in the governor’s proposal eliminating a number of initiatives he highlighted in his budget address in February.
The House also voted down party lines for an amendment Wednesday prohibiting the Department of Health and Human Services from additional spending on a closed loop information system to track client services and events.
Democrats said the amendment is a change in policy from that determined by the House Health and Human Services Committee and should not be included in the budget package, but Republicans said privacy issues raised by the plan need to be addressed before the agency moves forward with additional contracts.
The House budget would spend $13.67 billion in total funds, while the governor’s proposed budget spends $13.8 billion, a 5.6 percent increase over the current biennium.
The budget package also reduced business tax rates, removed a change in apportionment of the Business Profits Tax approved two years ago, and reduced the rates of both the rooms and meals and the interests and dividends taxes.
And the budget plan contains 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, and requiring legislative approval of states of emergencies beyond the first 21-day declaration.
And essentially prohibits Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and other abortion care providers from providing family planning and other health care services unless they can physically and financially separate abortion procedures from its other services.
Kayla Montgomery, senior director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of New England and Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund, said the budget plan defunds Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care providers during a pandemic.
“It is truly shameful that in a public health crisis, the majority of House budget writers are prioritizing stripping away access to care that low-income and uninsured Granite Staters rely on, including low or no-cost birth control, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screenings.
“In addition to defunding reproductive health care facilities, this callous budget dangerously underfunds the entire New Hampshire’s Family Planning Program, further endangering access to essential reproductive health care for the Granite Staters who already face the greatest barriers to care, including people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and people in rural communities,” Montgomery said.
Some of the controversial policy amendments were included in an attempt to entice more House Republicans to vote for the budget.
Four years ago, the House Freedom Caucus refused to support the budget and the House failed to approve its budget plan and had to rely on the Senate for a two-year operating budget.
The House is expected to vote on the package next Wednesday.
For state general and education trust spending, Sununu proposed a two-year budget of $5.59 billion in total appropriations while the House budget would spend $5.58 billion. In net appropriations, the governor proposed $5.46 billion in spending and the House $5.42 billon.
Total spending includes federal, highway, fish and game and various other funds as well as general and education trust fund money.
Projected revenue for the next two fiscal years would be nearly identical in the two budget proposals with the governor projecting state revenue at $5.55 billion and the House $5.56 billion.
Both Sununu and the House would take money out of the state’s $115 million rainy day fund to balance the current fiscal year’s budget: Sununu $30 million and the House $7.8 million.
But Legislative Budget Assistant Michael Kane said the rainy day fund figures could change depending on revenues for the remaining three months of the current biennium.
State revenues have been trending upward for a number of months with a surplus that could negate the need to draw money out of the rainy day fund.
LBA figures show a $27,000 surplus in the Highway Fund, which has been impacted by the pandemic, at the end of the biennium, and a $6 million surplus in the Fish and Game Fund, which has benefited from the pandemic.
After the vote, House Speaker Sherman Packard praised the finance committee for its work and delivering a proposed budget on time.
“Together, we have overcome the challenges of putting together a two-year budget plan in the midst of a pandemic — and we believe New Hampshire will come out of this stronger, with a more robust economy,” Packard said. “We know changes will come in the Senate. We know we will need to work out some differences in the Committee of Conference, and as promised, we will roll up our sleeves and work together to complete the people’s business.”
The House proposed budget would cut hundreds of positions in the Department of Health and Human Services, a back-of-the-budget cut of $50 million for the agency and eliminate a student loan forgiveness program the governor sought to retain in the current low-income scholarship program.
The House approved adding $11 million to level fund the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire, eliminating state water treatment grants, and using $100 million in general fund money to replace the same amount of money collected by statewide education property tax for one year.
House budget writers slowed down the merger process for the university and community college systems, rearranged the governor’s proposal for a new Department of Energy, and eliminated the Liquor Commission’s enforcement division, replacing it with the Division of Licensing and Education, saving $2.6 million in the second year of the biennium.
The House added about $30 million to prevent millions of dollars in downshifting of county nursing home costs to property taxpayers and eliminated the governor’s proposed paid family and medical leave program for state workers.
The House budget also eliminates the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester the second year of the biennium by removing more than $13 million in operating funds but did add $2.5 million to the budget to transition young people to other facilities.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.