Concord Monitor: House Democrats look to higher revenue estimates just days before state budget negotiations begin
By BEN LEUBSDORF
House and Senate budget negotiators plan to meet for the first time Friday and begin their work in earnest Monday – just days before their deadline to produce a compromise version of the next two-year state budget.
House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, and Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, are expected to name members of the budget committee of conference today. Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said the panel will meet for “an organizational kind of meeting” Friday morning and resume Monday at 9 a.m.
Both sides are positioning themselves for the negotiations, which under legislative rules must wrap up by June 20, next Thursday. The Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday adopted new revenue estimates for the biennium that begins July 1, coming in $49.2 million above the estimates adopted by the Republican-led Senate last week.
Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said the Senate won’t accept any tax or fee increases. While the Senate budget spends about $39.2 million more from the general fund over the biennium than does the budget adopted by the House in April, it includes several cuts – including a $50 million across-the-board personnel cut – that could be mitigated or eliminated by the House’s higher revenue estimates.
But Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called the new House estimates “a little high” for his tastes.
“I think when the Senate comes to the table at the committee of conference, that we’re going to feel pretty strongly about the revenue estimates that we provided,” Odell said.
But he and Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, agreed that, on the whole, the House and the Senate are close in terms of estimating revenue.
“We essentially are very close together on things,” Almy said.
House members were briefed for about two hours yesterday by Almy on the new revenue estimates and Jeff Pattison, the nonpartisan legislative budget assistant, on the differences between the House and Senate budgets that must be resolved by the conference committee.
Those include the Senate’s proposed $50 million across-the-board cut to personnel costs, with $20 million to come from the general fund and the details to be decided by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. The Senate budget contains a number of other back-of-the-budget, or unspecified, cuts, Pattison said, including $2 million from the Department of Revenue Administration.
The Senate budget writers reduced the size of a House cut to the Legislature’s budget, from $2.5 million to $2 million, but increased the House’s cut to the Department of Health and Human Services from $4.5 million to $7 million for the biennium.
Among the other changes:
∎ The House budget expands the Medicaid program; the Senate budget instead calls for a study commission.
∎ The House budget includes Hassan’s proposed new Office of Innovation and Efficiency, but the Senate budget axed it.
∎ The House budget retains the existing certificate of need review process for hospital construction projects, but the Senate budget allows the program to expire in 2015.
∎ The House budget delays several pending changes in business-tax laws, but the Senate budget allows them to go into effect as planned.
∎ The Senate budget adds a provision banning the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at liquor stores, gambling establishments or “adult-oriented” retail businesses.
∎ The Senate budget includes a $533,000 loan to the Berlin-based Tri-County Community Action Program that wasn’t in the House budget.
Once the conference committee finalizes the state budget next week, it will go back to the House and Senate for final votes before heading to Hassan’s desk.