CONCORD — House and Senate budget writers on Tuesday agreed to meet Gov. Chris Sununu halfway on his proposal for a new forensic psychiatric hospital to serve some of the state’s most challenging mental health patients.
In the second day of a three-day budget conference between House and Senate members, both sides agreed to include the Senate proposal for a $17.5 million, 25-bed Secure Psychiatric Unit on the grounds of New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s existing psychiatric hospital in Concord.
That’s smaller than the $26 million, 60-bed facility proposed by Sununu, but more than what the House proposed.
"The information received in the Senate indicated that a 60-bed SPU would cost $48 million," said state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord. "Sununu simply proposed $26 million."
State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, has lobbied for years to have the state move patients who have had no involvement with the criminal justice system out of the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) at the state prison, where they are housed with convicted criminals.
“There are those who would argue for a much larger facility, but the goal has been to take care of that population in the state prison, about 20 give or take, of folks with mental illness who are being criminalized by being in prison,” said Feltes.
The Senate agreed with a House proposal to move children out of the Children’s Wing at New Hampshire Hospital to free up anywhere from 32 to 48 beds for adults, in the hope of easing some of the boarding in hospital emergency rooms for patients awaiting admission to the state facility.
“Given information we had and the work we did, we think this is a reasonable proposal and in line with what Rep. Cushing and the governor have suggested,” said Feltes.
Both proposals will now appear on the budget to be voted on by the full House and Senate on June 27.
No deal on capital gains
The two sides could not agree on a House proposal for a 5 percent capital gains tax to enhance education funding.
Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, argued for the idea, which he described as an extension of the existing state tax on interest and dividend income that would net the state an additional $150 million a year to address education funding.
“The House worked hard on this through Ways and Means, and it came to the floor of the House where there was a solid vote for it,” said Ames. The bill cleared the House 199-143 in February with only two Republican votes.
Senate Finance Chair Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, was unequivocal about the Senate’s opposition to the idea, which Sununu has said would result in a budget veto.
“The Senate’s position is quite the opposite,” D’Allesandro said after Ames finished his presentation.
“We thank you for your hard work and deliberations, but the Senate rejects the capital gains tax. We have found a way to fund this budget with existing revenues and tax reform. I don’t think capital gains is a viable solution at this point in time, and the Senate rejects it.”
Housing appeals board
The House was equally adamant in rejecting a Housing Appeals Board that could override the decisions of local land-use boards in the interest of promoting affordable housing.
“This creates a separate appeals process as an alternative to Superior Court, to have timely appeals for workforce housing and affordable housing,”” said Feltes.
“I understand there are some municipalities that don’t support this, however, I want to make it very clear to them and others who oppose the concept, there is no substantial change in the (workforce housing) law. It creates a separate appeals process. That’s it,” he said.
“The notion that this is tearing apart local control is not true. What is true is a separate, expedited appeals process, because when you are planning some of these places for workforce housing, you can’t wait three to five years for an appeal at Superior Court to be done.”
Rep. Pat Lovejoy, D-Stratham, said the House is strongly opposed.
“To say there is a groundswell against this in the House would be putting it mildly,” she said.
“I fully support the idea behind this, to deal with affordable, workforce housing, but I think we may be using an ax when we should be using a scalpel. The feeling this is overriding local control is a strong feeling among House members of both parties.”
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, R-Nashua, said not all communities are opposed.
“I’ve gotten emails against this, but the city of Nashua strongly supports this being in here and funded,” she said. “There are communities that think this is important to help us get more affordable housing.”
Anything the two sides can’t agree to by the end of deliberations will not appear in the final version of the budget that goes before both chambers.
House and Senate negotiators agreed on several points, including:
• A commission to study long-term solutions to education funding, with a $500,000 budget.
• $8 million in funding for short-term increases in Medicaid rates paid to mental health and substance abuse service providers.
• $3 million in additional funds for the Granite Shield drug enforcement program.
• $450,000 for emergency housing in Manchester for people in recovery from addiction.
Most matters related to education funding were left for Wednesday.