By Garry Rayno
A governor’s proposed two-year budget is a blueprint outlining his or her priorities. Along with addressing what the governor perceives as the state’s greatest needs, the budget plan also sends a message to certain state agencies and public institutions.
Of the 1,000 or more bills lawmakers will debate this six-month session, the budget package — House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 — will have far greater impact on the state than the hot-button issues like right-to-work and concealed carry for firearms.
The budget will affect the lives of nearly every citizen and most visitors to the Granite State for the next two fiscal years from low-income people needing health services to tourists buying liquor at the interstate rest areas.
To add to the pressure, first-term governors like newly elected Chris Sununu have little time to produce their first biennial budget — about two months — and often craft a document heavy on past practices with a few specific priorities they want to push.
The governor’s budget proposal is the first step in the process. The House and then the Senate will craft their own plans with their own priorities and then reconcile their differences in June. That budget could look substantially different than Sununu’s.
Last week Sununu unveiled his $12.2 billion proposed budget and many were pleasantly surprised.
Sununu’s focus on educational opportunities for children and youth, enhancing the state’s business climate, improving several health and human services divisions and fighting the state’s still-growing opioid epidemic were all issues he raised during his campaign.
Most everyone would agree with those priorities but might not agree with his method of addressing them.
For example, while Sununu included $9 million to help poor communities offer full-day kindergarten another $3 million would have covered the entire cost for all state districts.
Many were pleased with the amount of money the first-term governor proposed to eliminate the developmentally disabled wait list, to adequately staff the Division for Children, Youth and Families and to address lingering issues in mental health services.
Significant sums of money budgeted for developmentally disabled services have not been spent during the last few budget cycles.
At the same time, the wait list for those turning 21 years old and move from a school district’s responsibility to the state’s has grown despite efforts to reduce it.
One of the chief problems is finding people willing to work for what the state will pay.
Sununu not only increased funding by $57 million to eliminate the wait list he also included $5 million for a workforce fund to boost pay and ultimately the number of people working in the field.
Sununu told lawmakers this week his budget anticipates the real cost of health and human services noting the multi-million dollar shortfall in the agency’s budget this fiscal year.
Lawmakers for years have underfunded Medicaid knowing the state will have to pay the mandated costs anyway.
The department has to juggle money between different agency programs to cover the deficit, which is not honest budgeting.
Despite the deficit in health and human services, Sununu inherited a healthy revenue stream producing an $88 million surplus from the 2016 fiscal year that ended June 30 and a nearly $50 million surplus this fiscal year with four months remaining.
Rather than roll all that money into the next biennial budget Sununu wants to use $84.4 million of the surplus for a “Infrastructure Revitalization Account.” Money from the fund would go to cities and towns for roads and bridges, to school districts for critical health and safety building needs and for drug interdiction programs like Granite Hammer.
By using the money this way, it is not rolled into operating budget increases the next two years and going forward.
But some lawmakers are bound to see other uses for the money.
For example, what was not included in Sununu’s budget plan was any mention of Medicaid expansion which covers about 50,000 low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act. Currently the state’s hospitals and health insurers pay the state’s 5 percent share of the federal health insurance program.
With the program’s uncertainty in the GOP-controlled Congress which has repeatedly voted to abolish the ACA, and the Trump administration, waiting may be warranted, but that does not please providers, recipients and advocates who have worked tirelessly the past six years to find a bipartisan solution unique to New Hampshire.
State officials have cited Medicaid expansion as a key component in the fight against opioid addiction and the drawing card for providers to come or expand their programs here. Not funding the program would be a significant blow to the state’s effort to curb the opioid addiction epidemic in all corners of New Hampshire.
The other significant issue is funding for the University System of New Hampshire. Sununu level-funded state aid at $81 million each year, while officials had asked for a $20 million increase to hold tuition stable.
Long gone are the days of the “university mafia” — Sens. Clesson “Junie” Blaisdell, Ralph Hough and Rep. Bill Kidder — who made sure the university system received its “fair share” of state spending, but lawmakers today are likely to add more money for higher education.
Politically it is hard to justify increasing tuition for parents and students while the state has more than a $100 million surplus.
Sununu did create a governor’s scholarship fund of $5 million to keep New Hampshire students in-state, but there is no guarantee the money will help university system students.
While Sununu flat-funded the university system he increased funding for the community college system and included about $10 million in his capital budget plan while the university system receives nothing.
The message is clear.
Likewise the traditional public school system has little to cheer about in the proposed budget while public charter schools receive an additional $15 million.
Under current law, the state education aid cap on growing schools ends but that also reduces grants for many property poor school districts that have experienced declining enrollment.
Overall, Sununu’s budget has things to please most everyone and many things for certain contingencies to dislike.
But make no mistake, this is a Republican’s budget. Democratic governors begin their budget addresses talking about addressing key state needs, while further down in the speech they say there is no income or sales tax.
Sununu was barely into his budget address when he noted his budget contained no income, sales or new taxes, nor any tax increases.
Yes, Republicans are in control of the State House for the first time in 12 years when taxes and fees are the top priority.
Sununu may have impressed with his budget proposal, but he was handed a major defeat Thursday when the House killed the right-to-work bill. Senate Bill 11 was killed on a 200-177 vote with 32 Republicans joining with Democrats to defeat the bill to prohibit unions from charging non-members for the cost of labor negotiations and contract management.
The bill has long been part of the state’s GOP platform and pushed by national organizations such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.
Sununu touted right-to-work as a key element of his plan to make the state more business friendly.
The bill has come before Granite State lawmakers almost annually, but either the House or the Senate kills it or the bill is vetoed and lawmakers could not muster the two-thirds majority to override.
This session the Senate passed the measure by a razor thin 12-11 margin, but the House refused to agree.
The House did not just disagree. Members voted 193-184 to indefinitely postpone any action on the issue which means right-to-work cannot come before the House for the remainder of the two-year term.
Do you think House members have had enough of right-to-work for a while?
Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome runs exclusively on Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org, where Rayno will explore a broader perspective on State House – and state – happenings. Over his three-decade career Rayno has closely covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat, and his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. He is former editor of The Hillsboro Messenger and Assistant Editor of The Argus-Champion. Rayno graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English Literature and lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.