The Senate Finance Committee has been hard at work for the last several weeks, working on the 2016-17 budget proposal that came over from the House and we are fast approaching our deadline to submit a final budget for consideration to the full Senate.
At this point, we've heard from all the departments and agencies and have a good sense of the problems and pitfalls in the budget the House of Representatives presented. A brief synopsis follows.
The House budget proposal appropriated $11.2 billion in total funds for the next biennium (as compared to the governor's budget of $11.5 billion.)
The House and governor budget proposals seem to be in agreement on approximately 35 departments — having little to no change. Some of those items include:
• Accepting the governor's proposal to cut funding for both bridge and road aid grants to municipalities in half.
• Fully funding the governor's recommendation for Office of Veterans Services and funding the new 25 bed unit at the N.H. Veterans Home.
• Accepting the governor's proposal to consolidate the Board of Nursing and the Real Estate Commission with the Joint Board.
• Accepting a variety of new and increased fees (e.g., vanity plate fee; Homeland Security Assessment; child support fee to name a few).
Some of the changes that the House did not agree with the governor on and made changes to include:
• Eliminating $93+ million in taxes and fees that the governor put into her budget;
• Allowing the sunset of The New Hampshire Health Protection Plan per current law.
• Eliminating the governor's proposal for a state Chief Operating Officer.
• Eliminating ServiceLink; significantly reducing Meals on Wheels and emergency shelter funding.
• Transferring $52.1 million from the Renewable Energy Fund to the general fund.
• Depleting the Rainy Day Fund ($9.3 million) for general fund spending.
• Greatly reducing funding for drug and alcohol prevention and treatment as well as tourism promotion.
Last week the Senate Finance Committee held the public hearing on the 2016/2017 budget in Concord and, as you might imagine, it was a packed house. An estimated 700+ New Hampshire citizens showed up to express their concerns about the budget proposed by the House. After nine hours of testimony, the public hearing ended at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Three-hundred seventy-four men, women, and youth signed in to speak. They included mothers and fathers, business people, advocacy groups, college students, and the developmentally disabled. Most of the testimony was in support of programs like Meals on Wheels, ServiceLink, developmental disabilities, mental health, substance abuse, and emergency shelters. Folks were frustrated, angry, and scared about the potential impacts from the House budget, but through all the testimony, comments were thoughtful and respectful.
With the public hearing behind us and having heard from the departments, we begin the process of putting the Senate's mark on the budget. As we have in the past, we will build a budget that is based on realistic revenues and lives within the state's means.
However, we do face challenges going into this budget that will force us to spend $123 million to $143 million more because of three issues (unexpected increase in spending due to the federal Affordable Care Act and the governor's settlement of the mental health and Medicaid Enhancement Tax lawsuits.)
We recognize that hard choices need to be made, and we will have much the same priorities as we had in our last budget. The Senate will craft a budget that works hard to protect the state's taxpayers and our most vulnerable citizens.
While we will continue to focus on those priorities, we will also work to re-establish the state's rainy day fund and reduce business taxes. We must create a better business climate for small and large business owners in the state.
I am confident that by working together, we will produce a responsible budget that lives within our means, with no new taxes and assures that our most vulnerable citizens and our taxpayers remain a top priority.
On a separate note, I'd like to share some good news with you — because of your calls, letters, and emails to the governor, funding has been restored to the nursing homes. When you doubt that your voice doesn't make a difference, here is a perfect example of where it has!
I am extremely pleased that the governor understood the importance of following the law and making nursing homes a priority. Unfortunately, she has not restored the $5.1 million to the home health agencies. I remain hopeful that she will do the right thing and restore the original funding to the home health care lines per the law.
(A Republican from Meredith, Jeanie Forrester represents District 2 in the N.H. Senate.)
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