Legislative Update June 16, 2017
A budget in the oven
After several long days and many meetings, the House and Senate reached agreement this week on the 2018-2019 Biennial Budget. Committees of conference also finished their work on the last of the 2017 bills. As is usual with budgets and the last bills left standing, there was some haggling, some negotiating, some disappointments, and in the end, some deals. The $11.7 billion agreement, however, may or may not mean the state will actually have a budget ready for the Governor Chris Sununu’s signature later this month. A positive vote next week in the Senate is all but assured, but the House remains divided, and leadership no doubt, has its work cut out for it. House Democrats, along with their Senate Democratic colleagues, will be united in their opposition. They say the budget greatly underfunds many of their social service priorities, and they found more reason to object after restrictive language on abortion and family planning was added this week. Republicans defend the budget as one that is responsive to social needs by increasing funding for problems such as mental health care and the opioid crisis, but also responsible in terms of overall spending and demonstrating through tax cuts that the state is friendly toward business. However, there are members of the House Freedom Caucus who continue to appear unsatisfied even after revenue estimates were revised downward to allow for budget reductions, business taxes were cut further than already planned and a tax repeal was added.
The finer points
Finalizing the budget came down to agreeing on several items, some in the budget and others in legislation. One of the biggest pieces on the legislative side was the so-called kenogarten bill. The committee of conference signed off on the bill, but only after the two Democrats on the committee were replaced in order to get the necessary unanimous approval. They had opposed the bill because it does not provide municipalities with full, per pupil funding up to state adequacy levels. The measure uses keno gaming, a House preference, as a funding mechanism. Full-day kindergarten has been a priority for Governor Sununu and supported by the Senate and a majority of House members. In the end it was the disagreement over adequacy funding, not keno – which had long been a non-starter in the Senate – that was the sticking point. The bill must still be adopted by both chambers next week. Within the budget process itself, along with adopting lower revenue estimates, the House and Senate agreed to a provision repealing the Electricity Consumption Tax, effective Fiscal Year 2019. Although the overall impact, both in terms of losses to state revenue and rate savings for residential consumers, will be relatively small, the repeal of the tax is seen both as a way to possibly win over more conservative House members, and also a step toward addressing high energy costs. Negotiators also agreed on a provision for internet lottery ticket sales that is expected to add about $13 million to the budget over the next two years.
Capital, not capitol
The House and Senate agreed on the 2018-2019 Capital Budget on Thursday, after a prolonged debate that lasted several days. The key disagreement was funding for a public boat access at Lake Sunapee, an issue that has been something of a political football for almost 30 years. Although several proponents of funding the access held on for a few days and dangled the possibility of killing the entire Capital Budget, in the end there was agreement that the funding needed for the access project was not to be found. The $125 million Capital Budget involves larger, longer-term spending projects funded by bonding and federal money matches.
Help is on the way
Governor Sununu on Thursday signed into law a bill addressing two serious issues that have been in the spotlight this year, mental health care services and child protection. Attached mid-session as an amendment to a bill directing the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a 10-year plan for mental health services, the measure was a priority for the Governor. The plan will add beds and expand the availability of mental health care assistance, as well as strengthening the protection of children from abuse and neglect by restructuring the Division of Child and Family Services and providing greater oversight.
Ever since its adoption several years ago, there have been attempts to end the state’s Medicaid expansion program. In a late addition to the budget, Republicans added a requirement for enrollees to work, attend job training or take classes in order to stay on the low-income health insurance program, a change that will require the state to apply to Washington for a waiver. The approach may succeed where other efforts to repeal expansion have failed. If the work requirement is rejected by the federal government, which has in the past turned away work requirements requests from New Hampshire and other states, the new provision could end the expanded Medicaid program here by mid-2018.
Another hat in the ring
State Senator Andy Sanborn this week announced he is running for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2018. Sanborn is serving his fourth term in the Senate. He represents District 9, which includes his hometown of Bedford, and 13 other towns to the north and west. The 1st Congressional District seat is currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Republican Eddie Edwards, a former police chief and former head of liquor enforcement for the state, has already announced his candidacy. Several other Republicans have expressed an interest in running.
The Senate and the House will meet in session on June 22nd to take action on the 2018-2019 budget and all conference committee recommendations. Should the budget come up short in the House, Governor Sununu would likely call a special session in an attempt to find compromise. If necessary, a continuing resolution would have to be adopted by July 1 in order to keep state government operating.