Lawmakers move closer to state budget appealing to Freedom Caucus group
By DAVE SOLOMON State House Bureau
CONCORD — It’s starting to look like the path to a state budget for 2018-19 will have to run through the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-right Republicans who succeeded in defeating the House version of the budget when it was presented in April.
"I think many things are being done to take care of the Freedom Caucus," said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, during a break in the budget negotiations on Tuesday.
Republican leaders from the House and Senate are close to a budget deal designed to attract Freedom Caucus votes through additional cuts in spending, lower revenue estimates than either the House, the Senate or the governor have proposed up to this point, and a new tax cut.
Budget conferees continued their grinding line-by-line review of the $11.8 billion spending plan, agreeing to a projection of $4.8 billion in state-generated revenue (not counting federal funds) over the two years of the budget.
That’s $29 million lower than estimates in the Senate-passed budget and $44 million less than the governor’s estimates, although the committee agreed to add $13 million to the Education Trust Fund over the two years through internet sales of lottery tickets.
Conferees also agreed to include in the budget the elimination of the electricity consumption tax. Billed at a rate of 0.00055 cents per kilowatt hour, it amounts to about 33 cents on a $120 electric bill, and generates about $6 million for the state budget each year.
The conservative revenue estimates were approved despite protests from Democrats on the committee, who endorsed the projections provided by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. "The governor provided realistic estimates and these are artificially low," said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord.
The lower revenue estimates set the stage for spending reductions demanded by members of the Freedom Caucus, whose 40 to 60 Republican votes will be essential to pass a budget without Democratic support.
Feltes said Republicans had an opportunity to win Democratic votes if they would agree to the revenue estimates submitted by Sununu, give up on a new round of business tax cuts and add about $45 million in spending, mostly to support health and human services programs.
That now seems out of the question, which means the budget that goes to the full House and Senate next week is likely to reflect additional cuts in spending.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, set the stage for that outcome late Monday night, when he proposed a cut in General Fund spending by $28 million in each of the two years, for a total of $56 million.
As of early Tuesday night, the conference committee had agreed to a $5 million a year college scholarship program proposed by Sununu, and an increase of $500,000 per year for domestic violence programs.
Conferees also agreed to create the Office of Child Advocate to provide third-party oversight of the Department for Children, Youth and Families, at a cost of $140,000 a year, paid for out of general funds.
Other positions approved by the committee include one new attorney to prosecute election law violations, at a cost of $75,000 in the first year and $73,000 in the second.
House negotiators conceded to the Senate on judicial branch appropriations, eliminating a new Superior Court judge but adding a new Circuit Court judge in 2019.
A new pathologist position was added to the Medical Examiner’s Office to help ease the backlog of drug-related cases.
The House agreed to Senate changes in the state’s alcohol and drug rehabilitation fund, allocating 3.4 percent of liquor commission revenues to the fund and earmarking up to $4 million for construction and operation of a drug rehabilitation wing for juveniles at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.
State police got most of what was requested, including five more troopers for the Granite Hammer drug interdiction program in 2018. If the department can fill those positions, it can come back to the Legislative Fiscal Committee for five more in 2019.
Some of the most controversial issues, like funding for full-day kindergarten, a new round of business tax cuts and rate increases for nursing home services, remained unresolved as of early Tuesday evening, although negotiations continued into the night.
All decisions of conferees are tentative and subject to change before final approval of the compromise spending plan that will go before both chambers for a vote next week.
Union Leader Staff Writer Kevin Landrigan contributed to this report.