MANCHESTER — Republican legislative leaders Thursday took much of the credit for what they said was a balanced budget that funds the state’s needs without new or increased taxes.
A GOP “budget roundtable” organized by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee at Manchester City Hall was aimed at “talking about the positive aspects of the budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, “how we protected taxpayers, didn’t raise a single fee or tax and how we lived within our means and did so while meeting the needs of the state and a way that should allow for economic growth.
“In typical Live Free or Die fashion,” Bradley said, “people came together.”
The $10.7 billion fiscal 2014-2015 budget passed the 24-member Senate unanimously and the 400-member House with only 18 dissenters. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, and Democrats hold the majority in the House. Gov. Maggie Hassan is a Democrat.
Veteran lawmaker Bradley called the bipartisanship “unprecedented in my memory.”
Democrats, however, issued a reminder after the meeting that the same Republican leaders had voted for a smaller, $10.3 billion fiscal 2012-2013 budget, which, they said, made cuts public higher education, “killed hundreds of New Hampshire jobs and devastated health services.”
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas expressed concern about a shortage of New Hampshire Hospital beds for the mentally ill after an Elliot Hospital emergency room worker was brutally attacked and seriously injured by a mentally ill patient in mid-July.
The attacker had been in the hospital emergency department for three days before the attack, waiting for a psychiatric bed at the New Hampshire Hospital in Concord.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said, “Mental health funding was a priority from the beginning,” and the current budget increases funding in that area by about $30 million over the previous budget.
After hospital beds were closed under the prior budget, he said, “I think Concord realizes there’s a problem.”
State Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, a member of the House Finance Committee, said the budget initially sent to the House by Hassan included a 15-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax hike and a 30-cent-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax. It also included $80 million in anticipated revenue from a licensing fee for a casino.He said although House Republicans wanted no increased taxes or fees, “that was not the prevailing attitude” in the Democratic-controlled House. The Senate eventually killed those proposed tax hikes.
More revenue needed
At the same time, he said, the Senate passed a casino gambling bill only to have it killed in the House.
“So, we were stuck with no new revenue,” Weyler said.
Morse said the Senate received an $11 billion budget from the House, but cut it to $10.7 billion because “that’s what the revenues were in the state.”
But he said the Senate added $100 million to higher education, while restoring a separate scholarship aid plan called UNIQUE, and more money was added to restore uncompensated care that had been drastically reduced in the prior budget.
Morse said he expects business along the state border and the state treasury in general to benefit from holding the line on cigarette and gas taxes while both have increased in Massachusetts.
“That’s the best advertising the state can do,” he said. “It says we’re a business-friendly state.”
“Thank you, Deval Patrick,” said Rep. Lynne Ober of Hudson, who also is a key Republican on the House Finance Committee.
Morse also said there are four business-tax reductions in the current budget, totalling $13.5 million.
A key compromise reached in the budget was the formation of the current committee studying the possibility of Medicaid expansion in New Hampshire.
Bradley said after the meeting that it is too early to predict if there will eventually be a compromise.
He said the committee is investigating different approaches being taken in various states, “and I think all of us felt” that “some other concepts should be looked at thoroughly to determine if the federal government can realistically keep its promise” to continue to fund its share of Medicaid expansion.
One of the disappointments of the session for Morse and the Senate GOP majority, as well as for Hassan, was the House vote killing the casino gambling bill.
Morse said that while the budget, in his opinion, meets many of the needs of the state, there are other areas that require more revenue, especially highways.
“We should be making an investment. We know we have a problem with the highway system,” he said.
He said the states needs to bond $250 million for the Interstate 93 project “and for that we know we will need $20 million a year.”
Ober, R-Hudson, said she wanted to increase funding for the project, but said, “We had to make some hard decisions.”