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February 14. 2013 11:20PM

Governor's budget proposals draw party-line criticism

CONCORD - Republicans criticized Gov. Maggie Hassan for including uncertain revenues in her budget, while Democrats praised her for presenting a "realistic budget" in the state's current economic environment.

While Republicans focused on Hassan's gambling proposal and a 10 percent increase in spending, Democrats focused on Hassan's effort to restore money and programs cut from the current budget approved by a Republican-dominated Legislature two years ago.

"Facing a challenging fiscal situation Gov. Hassan has made the difficult decisions needed to balance the budget, while investing in our priorities of public safety, economic development, health care, and education," said Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord. "While her budget does not undo all the damage from the last Legislature all at once, the governor is putting New Hampshire back on the right path and building the foundation for an innovative economic future."

Republicans said no gambling bill has been approved by lawmakers so the $80 million in gambling licensing fees should not be in her budget.

"Building a budget on revenues from an industry that is not yet legal in New Hampshire is just plain irresponsible. No governor, Senate president or speaker have ever attempted to rely on any sort of gaming revenue as part of a budget and all believed it should rise or fall on its own merits," said Deputy House Minority Leader David Hess, R-Hooksett. "If the governor wants expanded gaming, I would suggest she craft a budget on known revenue first, then make her case for gaming revenue in the form of a separate bill."

Including casino gambling also did not sit well with one of Hassan's gubernatorial primary opponents, Bill Kennedy.

"There are better revenue alternatives than selling New Hampshire's proverbial soul for a short-term revenue fix," Kennedy said.

But Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 152, which would establish one casino along the southern border within Hassan's parameters said "gambling is the lynch pin."

He said the keys to Hassan's budget are gambling revenues, increasing revenues from the insurance premium tax and adding auditors and collectors at the Department of Revenue Administration. Without every one of those pieces, there is a significant problem, he said.

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, said she does not know if gambling will pass the House, but noted including it in the budget puts pressure on the House to pass it or find $80 million in cuts.

She said balancing the budget will be a significant challenge as revenues are growing slowly and lawmakers last year passed a number of business tax cuts without paying for them.

Norelli was pleased to see Hassan included some money for cities and towns in revenue sharing from the rooms and meals tax and will begin paying the state's share of water and sewer costs beginning in 2015. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, and Senate Finance Committee chair Chuck Morse, R-Salem, were concerned about the $1 billion in new spending over the biennium Hassan proposed.

Morse predicted the budget will not look at all like Hassan's after lawmakers work on it.

"That kind of increase cannot be sustained," he said.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith called Hassan's budget unrealistic.

"Gov. Hassan's budget . . . relies heavily on tens of millions of dollars that may never be realized during this biennium," Smith said. "Her budget increases spending on numerous programs, including many non-essential programs like robotics teams and LCHIP."

Others praised Hassan for expanding the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act that is projected to bring the state's hospitals and health care providers more than $2.5 billion in federal money over the next seven years.

"Gov. Hassan recognizes that Medicaid expansion would be a great benefit to New Hampshire's economy as well as to working families, communities, health care providers, and businesses across our state," said Tom Bunnell, policy consultant for VOICES for Health.

Medicaid expansion is expected to bring about $422 million in federal funds to the state in the 2014-15 biennium.

New Hampshire Hospital Association President Steve Ahnen is also pleased Hassan included eHe was also pleased Hassan will allocate $28 million more to the state's mental health system and return about $100 million to hospitals for uncompensated care costs.

Interim University System of New Hampshire Chancellor Todd Leach was pleased to see additional money for the university system included.

He said the freeze on in-state tuition will help many students who have been struggling.

Leach noted last budget cuts in state aid to higher education drove some students out-of-state.

Hassan's budget restores $55 million of the nearly $100 million reduction in state aid to the university system in the current biennium's budget.

grayno@unionleader.com


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