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May 21. 2013 10:24PM

Senate Finance Committee rejects House-approved tax hikes

CONCORD — Today's House vote on a Senate-passed bill to allow casino gambling comes the day after the Senate Finance Committee rejected about $53 million in House-approved tax increases and released a list of Health and Human Service spending reductions.

The committee voted 4-2 down party lines to reject a 20-cent-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax, which would produce $40 million during the biennium and a two-year delay in business tax credits for the state to save $13 million.

By the same vote, the committee rejected a 12-cent increase in the gasoline tax over three years that was included in the House-passed budget.

The House votes today on Senate Bill 152 to allow one casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. Budget writers agree the casino will not produce revenue for the upcoming biennium, but could provide the state with $80 million in revenue from a licensing fee that Gov. Maggie Hassan included in her budget.

Hassan has pushed for the bill telling lawmakers the money is needed for critical needs like higher education, the mental health system and the Children in Need of Services program.

The House vote is expected to be close. The House has never approved casino gambling, although the Senate has done so a number of times.

Spending cuts

The Senate, which is crafting its version of the state $11 billion two-year operating budget, has passed SB 152 but the finance committee has not included the $80 million in its budget and won't unless the House passes it, according to committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and a sponsor of SB 152.

Instead Morse has said the Senate will cut spending to make up the difference if the House does not pass the casino bill.

Morse released a list of $28 million potential reductions in health and human service programs Tuesday which include $4 million to reduce the developmentally disabled wait-list for services. The reduction represents about 25 percent reduction in the money Hassan and the House included in the budget to eliminate the wait-list.

Other reductions in House-approved spending include $3 million for community health centers and $4 million of the $24 million increase Hassan included for the mental health system, which is the subject of a lawsuit brought by patients and the federal government.

Morse's plan would also delay the restarting of the CHINS program which was eliminated in the last biennium budget except for about 50 of the most at-risk individuals who are a threat to themselves or others.

Governor reacts

Hassan's decried the reductions.

"The cuts outlined today by Senate Republicans are nothing short of devastating for the health and well-being of the people of New Hampshire," she said. "From cuts to our plan to strengthen our mental health system, to cuts in funds for the developmentally disabled, to cuts for CHINS, critical access hospitals, community health centers, local communities and more, Senate Republicans have decided to ignore the calls of Granite Staters to restore our priorities and meet our fundamental responsibilities, opting instead to continue the irresponsible actions of the last legislature."

Morse said the governor's criticism of Senate budget writers is wrong.

"The information distributed at this morning's executive session was intended to start the conversation on how we deal with millions of dollars in unrealistic estimates proposed by the governor and passed by the Democratic-controlled House," Morse said. "Going forward, the Senate will continue to make tough decisions based on honest revenue estimates and not in response to political gamesmanship."

Charter school boost

While Senate budget writers proposed cutting $28 million from Health and Human Services, they increased spending in other areas, adding $20 million over the biennium for hospitals to match federal disproportionate share money, bringing the total to $40 million.

The current budget cut more than $100 million from the program.

Senate budget writers decided to return $19 million to the Medicaid Quality Incentive Program for nursing homes which is matched with the same amount of federal dollars.

However, the Senate removed $5 million the House had included in its budget to help county nursing homes.

Charter schools fared better in the Senate Finance Committee than they did in the House.

The committee added $3.4 million to fund charter schools the state Board of Education has yet to approve.

Last fall the board decided not to approve any new applications until lawmakers approved more money for the program.

The Senate Finance Committee hopes to finish work on its budget plan by next week and vote on it June 6.

The House and Senate agree on many priorities — additional money for higher education, the mental health system, hospitals and the developmentally disabled, but not on how much is needed for the programs.

The budget is slated to go into effect July 1.

grayno@unionleader.com


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