Garry Rayno's State House Dome: NH budget process about to get messy
Gov. Maggie Hassan presented her proposed two-year budget last week, and now it is up to the House Finance Committee to begin dissecting her plan and pondering changes.
Much was said about the $80 million in gambling licensing fees she included. That may not be something other governors have done, but they have repeatedly included money from proposed tax rate jumps in budgets that lawmakers had yet to approve.
Including $80 million in licensing fees for a "high-end, highly regulated casino" along the state's southern border might have another purpose, putting the House - which has never passed expanded gambling - in a box.
Obviously, the pressure is on members of the Democrat-controlled House to pass gambling if they want the budget to include additional money for higher education, mental health services, hospitals and other "restorations," such as the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program and $5 million in revenue sharing for cities and towns.
The House's long history of rejecting video gambling and casinos will be tested because without new gambling revenues, lawmakers will have to cut state spending by $80 million.
While the governor's message is simple, the political realities are not.
The gambling bill that Hassan called a good starting point, Senate Bill 152, may not come to the House from the Senate until after the House has had to vote on the budget, although one of the sponsors, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said the Senate intends to take quick action on SB 152 and send it to the House early in March.
If that happened, would the House kill it quickly and craft something more to its liking? The last time the House did such crafting it came up with the LLC and campground taxes, which helped fuel a Republican landslide in the 2010 elections.
The House could also opt to hijack one of two other gambling bills - House Bill 665 or House Bill 678 - to produce something most representatives could live with but probably wouldn't raise $80 million.
The governor also wants the tobacco tax raised an additional 20 cents a pack above a 10 cent increase that kicks in this summer. The proposed increase prompted a standing ovation during Hassan's budget address, while her pitch for gambling at first brought an awkward silence and then polite applause, with only about 20 lawmakers standing to cheer.
The biggest challenge for the Senate will be House Bill 617, which would increase the gas tax 12 cents and vehicle registration fees $15 over three years, providing $122 million a year to fix the state's roads and bridges.
Hassan left no doubt she wants something done about roads and bridges.
"I stand ready to work with any member of either party who is willing to bring constructive, long-term ideas to the table so we can build a consensus solution that will help us begin to improve our roads and bridges and finish I-93," she said in her budget address.
The Senate gambling bill seeks to dedicate 45 percent of the state's share of the money to highways and bridges, but clearly Hassan wants gambling revenues to go into the state's general fund. So the message to the Senate is: You can have gambling, but you also need to do something more for the highway system, with either the gas tax or the registration fees.
We're in the preliminary rounds of the budget fight, and the final roll of the dice is months away.
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WOMEN'S PRISON: Included in Hassan's $129 million capital budget plan is $38 million for a new women's prison.
Inmates at the women's prison in Goffstown have sued the state over the conditions there. The aging prison does not allow women to receive the same services or participate in the same programs as inmates in the men's prisons in Concord and Berlin.
Essentially, it's a civil rights suit.
But as noted by House Public Works and Highways Committee Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, the $38 million "takes the oxygen out of the capital budget."
He wants to see the money allocated over two, two-year budget cycles, asserting the new prison could not possibly be sited, designed and built by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.
Although Hassan did not say last week where the new prison would go, the Corrections Department has been exploring building it behind the men's prison in Concord. The state owns ample land, and many of the buildings at the men's prison could be used by women prisoners, too.
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MEDICAID AND ACA: Along with Hassan's budget, key decisions on Medicaid expansion and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - commonly referred to as the ACA or "Obamacare'' - also came down last week.
The state had until Feb. 15 to decide whether to partner with the federal government in setting up health insurance exchanges, or markets, to help residents find the best policy for them.
Tuesday, the governor's legal counsel, Lucy Hodder, told the Joint Health Care Reform Oversight Committee that Hassan would seek a partnership, something the Republican members believed could not be done without prior committee approval.
Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge, voted with the Democrats, 4-2, to approve the letter seeking a partnership after the governor's office agreed to seek committee consent before taking further action involving exchanges.
"My vote affirmed the committee's authority," Hunt said later.
In her budget address, Hassan ended any speculation about where she stood on Medicaid expansion under the ACA.
"As both Democratic and Republican governors around the nation have said, it's a good deal, one that will, among other things, allow us to save money in existing state programs while increasing state revenues," Hassan said.
Hassan's budget includes about $300 million in federal money to pay for the new Medicaid enrollees when expansion begins, Jan. 1.
The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost for new enrollees for the first three years, then step down gradually to 90 percent in the seventh year and beyond.