State budget negotiators still searching for common ground
CONCORD — House and Senate budget negotiators made no progress Monday on resolving the major differences in their two versions of the fiscal 2014-15 operating budget.
The second day of budget negotiations saw agreements on such things as the fish and game and transportation departments money transfers and the House agreeing to forego its $5 increase for a saltwater fishing license to $15 a year, but not on a $50 million across-the-board cut in state employee compensation and benefits that will cause an estimated 700 layoffs.
House Finance Committee Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said “this is a very dangerous cut to make in the back of the budget. Every department is right down to bare bones.”
She said past reductions in positions have impacted every department in state government.
“We want state government to be responsive to our citizens,” Wallner said, “but we are not able to do that if you continue to reduce the workforce. This is very detrimental.”
But Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the Senate’s budget spends $400 million more than the budget approved two years ago.
He noted departments have filled 450 positions in the last few months when they probably shouldn’t have.
“We’re not trying to balance the budget on someone’s back solely,” Morse said. “I’m not sure what message we’re sending today.”
The two sides also could not agree on the Senate’s funding new charter schools when the House took the money out of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget, or restarting the school building aid program.
There was no movement on the Senate’s rejection of a 12-cent increase in the gasoline tax or a 20-cent-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax passed by the House.
The two sides did agree to discuss state revenues but the Senate said it would not entertain major projected increases in business, the real estate transfer, or the meals and rooms taxes.
The House Ways and Means Committee last week increased its revenues estimates $49.2 million more than the Senate.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bob Odell, R-Lempster, noted the House increases in several small revenue sources are real, but said the Senate’s two percent increase in each year of the biennium is realistic.
“We used to lead New England in economic recovery but now we are fifth out of six,” Odell noted, adding employment has not reached the level it was before the recession.
He said for the budgets from 2006 to 2010, the House Ways and Means estimates were $400 million more than the state realized.
“For those who need to spend money we don’t have,” Odell said, “we should wait for six months and then introduce legislation if need be.”
The Senate budget spends about $10.7 billion over the two years while the House budget is $11 billion. Both the Senate and House budgets spend about $2.8 billion in state general funds.
The committee recessed and meets again Tuesday at 10 a.m.
Negotiators’ deadline is Thursday at noon for the Senate and 4 p.m. for the House.