State senator takes aim at House budget package
CONCORD - The Senate Finance Committee will begin working on its version of the state's two-year operating budget Monday now that the House passed the two-bill package.
Key areas of the $11 billion spending plan have already been called unacceptable by finance committee chair Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem.
After the House approved the budget package Wednesday, Morse said "the House budget looks to spend millions of dollars in revenues the Senate will not approve and the state should not expect."
The House budget includes a 30-cent per pack increase in the tobacco tax, although 10 cents of the increase would happen automatically this summer anyway.
The House budget also includes a 12-cent increase in the gasoline tax over three years, while the Senate has already approved a casino gambling bill that dedicates a portion of the state's share to fixing the state's deteriorating roads and bridges.
Morse also raised the issue of the Medicaid Enhancement Tax (MET) that hospitals pay on net income from patient services. Earlier this week legislative budget office officials explained the MET and the uncompensated care program for hospitals before Senate Finance.
Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed significantly increasing the uncompensated care program to partially cover the state's 13 largest hospitals, which were eliminated from the program in the budget approved by lawmakers two years ago.
The House used about $33 million of the money from the MET that would go into the uncompensated care program for other purposes.
Morse maintains and has for nearly two months that the House's and Hassan's projections for the MET are unrealistic.
Until two years ago, almost all of the money hospitals paid in MET was returned to them through the uncompensated care program after the money was used to match federal funds.
After the program ceased for the largest hospitals, the amount of MET they paid dropped significantly.
Both Hassan and the House assume hospitals will pay at the old levels, but Morse says they are $72 million too high for the next two years.
Morse contends with realistic MET revenue estimates, there will be no uncompensated care program for the largest hospitals and the state general fund may be tapped to pay health service providers.
"I want factual numbers coming to finance," Morse said Tuesday. "The reality is if they intended to give uncompensated care (to hospitals), it's not in their budget."
The Senate has made restoring money to the hospitals for uncompensated care one of its priorities and talked last year about the need to restore the program.
Morse expressed concern about the school building aid program lawmakers revamped and approved last year after a six-year moratorium. The House removed the $7.2 million Hassan included to pay for new school building projects in the second year of the budget.
Senate Republicans are also not likely to agree with removing $2.5 million Hassan included for new charter schools nor the moratorium and greater oversight by the state Board of Education the House included.
Morse also took aim at a provision in both Hassan's and the House's budget that suspends business tax credits lawmakers passed last year, but that do not go into effect until the new biennium begins July 1.
And he noted the House budget spends nearly $1 billion more than the budget the Republican-controlled legislature passed two years ago.
"Beginning next week, Senate Finance will take a fresh look at the budget in an effort to create a document that funds state government within our means while protecting the reforms implemented last session," Morse said.
Morse and the Senate will count on the $80 million Hassan included in her budget for casino licensing fees that the House did not include. The Senate passed Senate Bill 152, but the House has yet to act on the bill.
Wednesday both Hassan and Morse urged the House to pass SB 152 to fund essential areas of the budget.
Next week, the Senate Finance Committee begins meeting Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays to craft its version of the two-year spending plan. The Senate deadline for acting on the budget is June 6.