April 01. 2013 4:05PM

Rhetoric heats up as House vote on budget nears

CONCORD -- Republican House leaders blasted the Democratic House Finance Committee proposed budget Monday as bloated spending plan that hits the poor the hardest with hikes in “regressive” taxes on gasoline and cigarettes and gives Gov. Maggie Hassan “carte blanche authority” to raid a myriad of designated accounts for overall general fund use.

The state Democratic chairman countered that for Republicans to express concern about the poor “is one of the most elaborate April fool jokes I’ve ever seen.”

At the same time, House Democratic leaders laid out the proposed fiscal 2014-2015 budget plan in a detailed briefing in Representatives Hall. The full House is scheduled to vote on the plan on Wednesday.

The finance panel budget calls for spending $2.8 billion in general funds during fiscal 2014 and 2015. When all funds are included, the budget is $10.9 billion.

Included is an increase in funding for the state university system by $47 million over two years and for the community college system by more than $19 million.

It adds 15 state troopers to the state’s roads and funds 26 additional receiving beds for the mentally ill, 16 in community-based settings and 10 in hospitals.

Finance Committee Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said the budget increases general fund spending by 3 percent over the current budget, covering fiscal 2012 and 2013, and calls for spending $51 million less than the plan put forward by Hassan in February.

But Republicans said the overall spending increase is actually 10 percent.

There was also a difference of opinion on the use of gambling revenue.

Rep. Lynne Ober of Hudson said the House Democrats included in their budget $80 million in revenue from casino licensing fees that Hassan had included in her proposal. But Rep. Neal Kurk R-Weare, the ranking Republican on the finance panel, said the casino money was not included.

Finance committee chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, clarifying what she called earlier “misinformation,” also said, “This budget document does not include gaming revenue.”

The Republicans said the Democratic budget includes $263 million in increased gasoline and tobacco taxes. They said it inflates revenue estimates by $31 million and redirects more than 26 percent of highway funds from a proposed gas tax hike to the department of safety for the additional troopers.

They said the plan “downshifts” $7 million more than is currently the case to from state funding county governments for adult nursing home and community based services.

 The Republicans also complained that the Democrats expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, imposed a moratorium on school building and charter school aid programs and killed an education tax credit, which, Kurk said, “would have given up to 2,500 low- and middle-income families an opportunity that is available to wealthier peers to go to private schools of their choice.”

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler said when the Democrats were last in control of the House, four years ago, they used “inflated revenue estimates” and other “gimmicks” to “leave one of our largest budget deficits in history, and we don’t want to be fooled again.”

Kurk said, “It’s unfortunate for me to have to say this, but it appears to me that this budget is balance on the backs of the poor,” with a 12-cents hike in the gasoline tax and 30-cents-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax, and on the backs of small business.” He said the GOP has identified “an even dozen” issues with the plan.

In addition to the “downshifting” of $7 million to county taxpayers, he said the school building aid moratorium is an effective cut of $7.2 million.

The Medicaid expansion will cost $1.3 million in the current budget, Kurk said, but he charged it “runs the risk of costing tens of millions of dollars after 2017, perhaps as much as $85 million.”

Kurk said the budget also suspends $13 million worth of credits for small businesses.

He said the House Democrats’ bill allows Hassan to “raid up to 300 dedicated funds without limitation as to dollar amount or the kind of funds in order to balance an expected 2013 deficit.

“This is an extraordinary delegation of legislative authority to the governor that in the past, to the extent it has been done, has been limited in dollar amount or specific fund that was to be raided,” Kurk said.

“Every New Hampshire family has to live within its means,” said Ober. “The state needs to do the same.”

“We have,” added Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, “more government than we can afford.”

Buckley said the Republicans did not address what Democrats say is a $30 million to $40 million deficit in the current budget.

“They  must be joking if they expect to be taken seriously,” Buckley said. “Instead of resorting to baseless attacks and embarrassing hypocrisy, Republicans should share how they would fix the massive Bradley-O’Brien budget,” invoking current state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and former House speaker Bill O’Brien.

Despite the GOP concern about the budget, Chandler said the minority leadership is not planning to “filibuster” the Wednesday debate. He said “maybe five or six” floor amendments  on “some of the more significant issues” are planned.

Kurk said increase in the adult services care cap for counties and the school building aid moratorium are the amendment priorities. The first GOP amendment, released late Monday, would exempt a dozen dedicated funds from being “raided” by the governor.

Chandler also said the House GOP leadership is not contesting the $124 million capital budget.