Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Lawmakers bask in dawn of new day
The 2013 session of the New Hampshire Legislature has ended, with the exception of dealing with vetoes and an expected special session to vote on Medicaid expansion this fall.
The cornerstone of the first year of any two-year session is the budget, and that certainly is the case this year.
It had strong bipartisan support, with the two bills passing the Senate on unanimous votes and better than 300-vote margins in the House, something that has not happened in more than a decade.
Lots of people were given credit for the final document, including Gov. Maggie Hassan, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and former House Speaker Bill O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, who claimed it was the continuation of the budget passed under his tutelage two years earlier.
The governor, House and Senate were near unanimous in their support for most of the spending, with additional money for higher education, the mental health system, the developmentally disabled waiting list for services, reinstating the Children in Need of Services Program and helping hospitals with unpaid bills for the services they provide.
How the House, Senate and governor got there may have differed, but the spending side of the budget was about the same among the three.
During negotiations between House and Senate budget writers, many observers noted the House was giving in on most of the changes the Senate made in the budget, such as restoring the UNIQUE scholarship program, full funding for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, and a program that uses a "bed tax" to garner additional federal money for nursing homes.
House Finance Committee Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, noted after the sides had come to an agreement that many of those things the House had wanted to do, but when her committee worked on the budget, the money was not available to pay for them.
By the time the Senate finished work on its version of the budget, $100 million more in new revenue had materialized because business tax returns for March and April showed strong growth, as did several other levies.
Before the end of the conference committee on the budget, there was about $200 million in additional revenue than what House budget writers had to work with.
There were significant differences between the House and Senate on two major issues, reducing the state government work force and Medicaid expansion. The House and governor wanted Medicaid expansion in the budget, the Senate did not. While expansion is not in, a road to expansion is through a committee that has until Oct. 15 to make a recommendation.
The Senate had the upper hand in the Medicaid battle and in the work force reduction fight, although the number was cut in half in the final agreement.
How to pay for helping hospitals with their unpaid bills was a top priority for the Senate and certainly high on the list for the House and Hassan after the program was slashed two years ago.
The Senate ended up winning that battle by adding $20 million in state general fund money to the pot to match federal dollars, while the House and Hassan were willing to give hospitals more money, but they had to basically self-fund half of it through the Medicaid Enhancement Tax.
The Senate had a clear victory in one major area, tax and fee increases. A 20 cent tobacco tax increase both Hassan and the House included in their budgets was killed by the Senate, as were fee increases for marriage licenses and for saltwater fishing licenses.
But the House won the battle over expanded gaming, which the Senate had backed and hoped to use to pay for higher education, roads, bridges and North Country economic development.
NHGOP Chairman Jennifer Horn likes to talk about Hassan's failure to persuade the Democrat-controlled House to cash in on casino gambling and its $80 million in casino licensing fees she included in her budget. However, establishing casino gambling was also the pet project of Morse and several other Republicans in the Senate, along with prime sponsor Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester.
In the end, budget writers did not need the $80 million from casino licensing fees to fund the state's core needs because the state's slowly rebounding economy is expected to produce new revenue to cover the difference.
The Senate clearly had all the leverage in budget talks, as it usually does because it is the last body to act on it, giving senators the advantage of a clearer revenue and spending picture.
However, the budget is half the story at conference committee time.
The House won some significant victories in other areas. Student identification cards will continue to satisfy requirements under the photo identification voting law, and having election officials photograph those without photo IDs was pushed off for another two years.
The House also beat back a Senate attempt to change language in the voter registration form linking voting to state motor vehicle and license requirements that had been found unconstitutional by a superior court judge.
The House also beat back attempts to allow employers to pay workers with payroll cards instead of checks, or for lawmakers to vote on cost items in collective bargaining agreements, or to close one of the Merrimack exit tolls on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.
In a global view, it was a pretty even match between the House and Senate during conference committee time.
Initiatives Blocked: Democrats won the 2012 elections, taking over the House, keeping a Democrat in the governor's seat and winning more votes than Republicans for state Senate seats.
Despite that, Republicans were able to hold control with a paper thin 13-11 majority in the Senate, and what a difference that has made.
Senate Republicans were able to stop key Democratic priorities this session. Bills with large majorities in the House were dead on arrival in the Senate if they sought to overturn programs or laws passed in the 2011-12 legislative sessions, when Republicans held super majorities in both the House and Senate.
The House voted to do away with the new education business tax credits for student scholarships to religious, private or home schools. Repeal was a Democratic priority, but died in the Senate on a 13-11 vote.
Another priority, repealing the stand-your-ground self-defense law passed two years ago, also went down to defeat in the Senate, as did a bill re-establishing the state's minimum wage law.
The Senate killed a bill to increase the gas tax by 12 cents over three years, although the vote against the bill included several Senate Democrats.
However, a party-line, 13-11 vote killed a bill passed by the House to prohibit the state from privatizing the state's prison system.Other House-passed bills the Senate killed include decriminalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana and allowing scuba divers to catch lobsters.
The partisan bickering between the House and Senate is bound to increase next session, as Republicans and Democrats try to position themselves and their opponents going into the 2014 election.
Giving Back: The Local Government Center was recently ordered to return $53.3 million it overcharged cities, towns and school districts for health and workers' compensation insurance.
Americans for Prosperity-NH called on cities and towns to give the money back to property taxpayers instead of growing local government.
"It will be all too easy for politicians to view this windfall as 'found money' and use your taxpayer dollars to expand the size of local government," said the group's state director, Greg Moore, in emails sent to activists. "Don't forget — this is your money and you deserve to have it returned to you! . . . Contact your local officials to demand that the property tax overpayments be used for taxpayer rebates or reduced tax charges for next year."
The LGC expects to return $24.8 million to cities, towns and school districts this summer. Fifteen communities can expect checks of more than $500,000, and three of those — School Administrative Unit 16, communities around Exeter; SAU 29, communities around Keene; and towns in the Timberlane Regional School District — will receive checks of more than $1 million.
A Rest: With the end of the legislative session, the Dome is taking some-much needed time off. I will be on vacation the next three weeks. Have a great July 4th holiday.