June 22. 2017 8:03PM

NH Legislature passes $11.7b state budget along party lines

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau


Sen. Gary Daniels, R-Milford, Senate Finance chair, moves HB517, touting business tax relief in the spending plan. (DAN TUOHY/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — The New Hampshire Legislature on Thursday approved an $11.7 billion, two-year state budget, ending months of speculation over whether more conservative factions of the Republican-dominated House would derail the measure.

The budget vote, combined with the passage of a bill to provide state funding for expanded kindergarten, marked a major legislative victory for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and GOP majorities in both House and Senate.

Republicans easily mustered enough votes to pass the budget in the House, where an earlier version failed in April as 32 members of the newly created Freedom Caucus demanded more cuts in spending, tax cuts or both.

After weeks of lobbying by Sununu and legislative leaders, the budget cleared the House on a 198-169 vote shortly after the Senate approved the spending and revenue plan along a party-line vote of 14-9.

Tax cuts for businesses, included in the Senate version of the budget, were not included in the House version that failed in April. The addition of those tax cuts played a major role in swaying more conservative House members.

The prospect of having to bargain with Democrats to pass a budget also played a role.

In the House, only five Democrats voted for the budget, and only 14 Republicans voted against it. As early as last week, some lawmakers were predicting as many as 25 to 30 Republican votes in opposition.

“The reality is we can unite as a party and produce a budget that works for the state of New Hampshire,” said Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, at a celebratory press conference with Sununu, House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, and other Republicans after the vote, including representatives of the Freedom Caucus.

“It was the right thing to do, and it only happened because we listened to every one of you,” said Morse, signaling to the crowd.

House Republicans in support of the budget cited the business tax cuts, investments in mental health and child protection, new infrastructure funds for roads, bridges and school buildings, and increases in state aid to cities and towns.

“The bottom line, my constituents get a lot out of this budget,” said Rep. Lynn Ober, R-Hudson.

The final version of the budget that was passed spends $24 million less than the initial budgets proposed by the governor, the House or the Senate, said House Finance Committee Chair Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who put the increase in overall spending at 4.1 percent over the current budget.

“This budget benefits all the people of New Hampshire,” he said. “It’s affordable to state taxpayers because it lives within its means. There are no new taxes and no increased taxes.”

Democrats decried the business tax cuts, the lack of workforce development programs, the failure of the budget to increase funding for the university system and the level of funding for addiction treatment and recovery.

Rep. Marjorie Smith pointed out that anywhere from $250 million to $300 million in anticipated spending does not appear in the budget, but will be distributed over the year at the discretion of the Fiscal Committee, comprised of five members from each chamber.

“If you are supporting this budget because the bottom line seems lower, I wish you well, but I want you to know ... You’ve been snookered,” she said.

The Senate engaged in a short but lively debate before passing the budget, and the related trailer bill that contains the statutory language and policy changes needed to implement the plan.

Senate Finance Chairman Gary Daniels, R-Milford, urged passage, saying the budget addressed New Hampshire priorities, including child protection services and doubling the state’s alcohol and drug treatment and rehabilitation fund.

Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said the plan spends more on business tax cuts than on some priorities, such as child protection. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, countered that the budget funds 20 new case workers for the state Division of Children, Youth, and Families.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, noted the budget eliminates a tax — the Electricity Consumption Tax. “How rare is that?” he said. Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, pointed out that the electric consumption tax costs 33 cents per month on the average Granite State electric bill, but raises $6 million for the state.

Sununu was clearly delighted by the outcome of the Legislature’s final session of the year.

“Our budget is a bold step in the right direction,” he said after the votes. “From business tax cuts to eliminating the Electricity Consumption Tax, it empowers small business owners to reinvest, which will reinvigorate and grow our economy.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com; Staff writer Dan Tuohy contributed to this report