Medicaid still a budgetary sticking point
CONCORD — The Senate's chief budget negotiator drew a line in the sand Friday on the first day of talks on the state's operating budget for the next two years.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, told House negotiators Medicaid expansion, tax and fee increases and overblown tax estimates are off the table.
The biggest area of disagreement is Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which has the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan and the House, but the Senate wants to wait for a yet-to-be-established commission to study the impacts of expansion on the state.
"The issue is far too complex to be lumped into 100 or so more issues in House Bill 2," Morse said. "The issue should go through the normal legislative process as a stand alone bill.''
Later, Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, who proposed the Medicaid expansion study commission, said there is some room to talk about Medicaid expansion during budget negotiations.
"It is very difficult to get any kind of language that would implement Medicaid expansion — a very complex issue — in three days," Bragdon said. "I'm open to discussing the role of the commission, the time frame and what we ask the commission to do."
He said senators want to look under the hood of the vehicle they're being asked to buy.
Hassan and House and Senate Democrats have argued the state should expand Medicaid in order to add about 58,000 citizens to the state-federal health insurance program for the poor, disabled and elderly. They say the state would be foolish to turn down $2.5 billion in federal money, which will improve the health of residents and boost the economy.
Morse also attempted to end any discussion about additional state revenue through taxes.
He said the Senate would not entertain increased revenue estimates to justify more spending.
The House Ways and Means Committee recently boosted estimates by $49.2 million more than the Senate's.
"We will be skeptical about inflating those estimates in order to increase spending in this budget," Morse said. "The families of New Hampshire have to live within their existing means and we as a government should do so as well."
The House chief negotiator, House Finance Committee Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, took a more conciliatory tone."We are all here to have a positive outcome for our state," Wallner said, noting she and Morse had been meeting. "I look forward to the next four days as we work towards a new budget.''Friday the two sides made little progress on areas where they disagree, such as business tax credits the House wants to delay for two years but the Senate does not, or charter school expansion, which the Senate funded, but the House did not.
A major area of disagreement is a $50 million across-the-board reduction in compensation and benefits that is projected to result in 700 layoffs. Of the $50 million reduction, $20 million has to come from general fund dollars.
The two sides did agree to take $16.1 million out of the Renewable Energy Fund for energy efficiency projects and put the money into the state's general fund.
The two budget proposals included identical funding for such big tickets items as higher education aid, the mental health system and developmentally disabled services
The House passed an $11 billion budget and the Senate approved $10.7 billion. Both plans spend about $2.8 billion in state general fund money.
Budget negotiators will meet again Monday at 9 a.m. when they will discuss revenue estimates and Medicaid expansion.
The deadline for conference committees to come to agreements is Thursday. The Senate deadline is noon and the House's is 4 p.m.