Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Vote coming on House's Hassan-like budget
Spring training is over for the Legislature, and the game that counts is about to begin.
The House will vote on its budget proposal this week, scheduled for Wednesday, after its Appropriations and Ways and Means committees have worked since February to adjust the budget Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed.
Much has been made about the $80 million in casino gambling licensing fees Hassan included in her proposal that House budget writers did not.
The expectations were that committee members would either increase revenue or cut spending.
House budget writers did a little of both, but what they will present this week looks remarkably like the budget the new governor proposed six weeks ago, although with about $52 million less in spending, which is not a lot in a $2.8 billion two-year budget.
The House made no changes to several key areas of Hassan's budget, including upgrading the state's mental health system and adding money to end a waiting list for services for developmentally disabled people, fund the community college system and the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, and expand the state's Medicaid program under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Budget writers did cut $12 million from the University System of New Hampshire, $9 million from Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, $9 million from the Disproportionate Hospital Share Program, $7.2 million for school building aid and $2.5 million for new charter schools.
They also decided to use the Medicaid Enhancement Tax to fund a greater share of health provider payments and reduce the general fund money for the uncompensated care program for hospitals, saving about $50 million in general funds combined.
Budget writers added 10 cents to the tobacco tax, above the 20 cent increase the House had already approved, providing an additional $20 million, and added a one-time payment of $17 million from a new settlement with tobacco companies.
And for good measure, budget writers put the 12 cent gasoline tax over three years, which the House passed last week, into the trailer bill containing changes in law needed to make the budget work.
Much of what is in and out of the House's budget has a lot to do with what the Senate is expected to do with the budget once it comes over from the House.
Putting the gas tax increase in the budget allows the House to keep the issue alive when House and Senate negotiators sit down in June to work on a budget compromise.
If the Senate - as expected - kills the specific gas tax bill, the tax will still be part of the discussions.
The same is true for the tobacco tax increase. It is going to increase 10 cents in August anyway, and the Senate may have been persuaded to bump it up a little more, but not 20 cents a pack more.
Putting the 30 cent increase in the budget keeps the discussion going.
Another bargaining chip is the charter school money and the moratorium on new charter schools the House has in its budget.
House leaders know the Senate is likely to want the additional money for new charter schools that Hassan included in the budget and may agree with some of her provisions giving the state Board of Education more flexibility to determine whether new charter schools are needed in geographic and subject matter areas.
Funding the LCHIP program at Hassan's level is another issue that may draw fire in the Senate, along with the additional money for the mental health system and developmentally disabled wait list.
The Senate, which passed a casino gambling bill supported by Hassan, has said it will not put the gambling bill into the trailer bill, but the members may change their minds when they see what the House has done.
Last week, the Senate tabled the Moose Scholarship program, the pet project of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, so the House couldn't kill it and instead the Senate could put it in its budget.
The chess match has begun, but you can be sure the Republican-controlled Senate's budget will be substantially less than the Democrats' House budget proposal.
- - - - - - - -
CAPITAL BUDGET: The state's capital budget went largely unnoticed until last week, when the House Public Works and Highway Committee approved the $124 million plan.
Much like the operating budget, the capital budget up for a vote by the House Wednesday is very similar to Hassan's plan.
The linchpin of the capital budget is a women's prison slated to be built next to the men's prison in Concord.
The women's prison has long been the Department of Corrections' top priority, but lawmakers had pushed it aside in favor of other projects.
Women prisoners and their families finally filed suit, saying they could not access the same programs as men because of the inadequate Goffstown facility.
Now a new women's prison is the top priority, costing $38 million, roughly a third of the entire capital budget for the upcoming biennium.
Other big money in the capital budget is renovating and updating the regional technical centers in Whitefield and Salem, at about $24 million.
It also includes three new liquor stores in Salem, Epping and Warner. The total capital projects for the liquor commission would be nearly $20 million, though the bonds for those projects would be paid with liquor revenues, not general funds.
The big loser in the capital budget is the university system, which has been receiving about $35 million each biennium for capital projects but would receive $7.5 million this time.
As in the operating budget, the community college system fairs better, receiving $13 million. What once was referred to as "the UNH mafia'' is no longer in charge.
The capital budget includes $472,445 - about half of what Hassan wants - to repair the State House's gold dome. The gold leaf is flaking.
A new voting machine and software for the House is also included, costing $540,000. That could be an easy target for the Senate Capital Budget Committee, but the thought of doing voice roll calls in the 400-member House late into a very warm June evening ought to scare everybody.
- - - - - - - -
ON A ROLL: Putting gambling aside for a few days, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and his family, including his grandson Anthony Smith of Salem, will be at the White House Monday for the annual Easter Egg Roll.
Smith, whose story led Marvel Comics to create "Blue Ear," a hearing-aid-wearing super hero, was born with a chromosome disorder that affected his right side.
D'Allesandro said his grandson will wear his Blue Ear costume to the White House event. "He's very excited," D'Allesandro said. "He's a great lesson for all of us."
- - - - - - - -
JUMPING THE GUN: The Manchester Board of Aldermen on Friday sent a letter to House Ways and Means Chairman Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, expressing support for Rep. Patrick Long's amendment to Senate Bill 152, the casino gambling bill the Senate has already passed. Long's amendment would limit the size of non-gambling venues on casino grounds to no more than 1,500 seats.
"The proposed casino gambling legislation could have a detrimental effect on the city of Manchester if it is competing with entertainment acts put on by the casinos. The Verizon Wireless Arena is a municipally owned building, and therefore, it is the responsibility of the city fathers to ensure its economic stability," Maura Leahy, administrative assistant city clerk, wrote for the board. (See related story.)
The problem is the "Long amendment" has not been introduced yet.
Long will be able to introduce it once the House Ways and Means Committee holds a public hearing on the bill and begins discussing it, but the hearing has yet to be scheduled.
- - - - - - - -
HELPING OUT: U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is running for reelection in 2014 and has been receiving lots of help raising money from everyone from her family to Hassan in recent weeks.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts helped the effort, sending out a fundraising email.
"I know it is crazy that we're already talking about 2014. I want to focus on banking reform and protecting Medicare and how we're going to put people back to work," Warren wrote. "But the Republicans are already gearing up for a huge fight next year - and they'll do anything they can to defeat our progressive champions like Jeanne Shaheen."
The email went out before the March 31 reporting deadline for federal candidates.
No Republican has officially announced his or her candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat.