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This budget session ended on quiet note

Sen. Donna Soucy of Manchester said she felt “like it was the last day of school.” In its historic chamber, hot and humid, the Senate was moving through its final day of the 2013 session.

While I have seen the last day of past annual sessions go on and on, with sharp-edged debates as the minutes ticked by and the sun began to set, it was completely different last Wednesday.

With one exception, the only votes were on whether to adopt or reject conference committee reports. The exception was to set the dates for senators to introduce new bills this fall, Sept. 30 to Oct. 25, for consideration next year.

The committees of conference reports fell into two categories. There were the three budget bills and then all the others. First up were the budget bills and after discussion started it took less than two hours before votes were taken.

Sen. David Pierce of Etna said the operating budget as agreed to in the Senate-House committee of conference provided “real, meaningful and positive steps” forward. He saluted the budget for increased funding for community colleges and the university system, mental health, developmental disabilities and for troubled children through the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program.

And while speaking positively about the new budget and how it had brought the House, Senate and governor together, with our “shared priorities,” Sen. Pierce said there were issues of concern to him.

These included the fact the budget had no increased funding for our highways and bridges. There is also a substantial requirement in the budget that the governor reduce personnel costs by $5 million in each of the two years of the budget. And Sen. Pierce said he wished that expansion of Medicaid had been included in the budget.

Several senators rose to congratulate the Senate’s Finance Chair, Chuck Morse of Salem, for his ability to build a $10.7 billion two year budget that is balanced and meets the needs of New Hampshire citizens. Senator Sylvia Larson of Concord, the Minority Leader, said the new budget was about “promises kept.”

Some noted that the work of Gov. Maggie Hassan in starting the budget process along with the contribution of House budget writers. But all had to acknowledge this new budget is uniquely a product of the State Senate.

There were two roll call votes, one on House Bill 1, which is the document with more than 1,000 pages of numbers, and House Bill 2, which has the implementation language for the budget. The bills passed 24-0 on roll call votes. The unanimous votes for the budget reminded me of 2009. The Democrats were in the majority. The chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, was removed from the Committee of Conference and with another Democrat Senator voted against the budget. The issue was expansion of gambling. It took one Republican to support the budget so it could pass 13 to 11.

Sen. Morse, a co-sponsor of this year’s casino bill with Sen. D’Allesandro, did not let expansion of gambling disrupt the budget process. The casino bill easily passed the Senate. But, just as easily it was defeated in the House. Morse made sure the budget process went forward, did not try to slip expanded gambling into the budget in the committee of conference, and was able to build a budget every Senator could support.

My prediction is that three issues relative to this budget will be revisited in 2015. First, everyone agrees that our roads and bridges need increased maintenance and repairs. I see a bill coming forward next year with a reasonable increase in the gas tax to meet some of these infrastructure needs.

Secondly, if more money comes in over the budgeted revenue estimates, the first $7 million will go to relieve the Department of Health and Human Services “back of the budget” cut. This requirement to find $7 million in savings was needed to help fund the $17 million cost of the state workers’ new contract. No committee conferee was happy with reducing spending at HHS after the heavy cuts our state’s largest agency has endured over the last couple of years.

Third, the budget calls for a four month study commission to look into New Hampshire expanding Medicaid rolls as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The details of setting up the study commission took many hours of backroom discussion during the committee of conference process including the personal involvement of Gov. Hassan. The report of the commission will set the stage for the legislature to vote on expansion late this fall or early next year.

Getting less attention were other committee of conference reports that passed. While the money to implement the CHINS program is in the budget, a separate bill was used to revise the CHINS statute. It received a 24-0 unanimous vote. On a voice vote, the use of cannabis (marijuana) for medicinal treatment passed. By 14-10, student IDs issued by New Hampshire schools may be used to prove who a voter is when they go to the polls. The use of photographing those without IDs was pushed off to the fall of 2015. The Liquor Commission will no longer have three commissioners. It will now have a single commissioner and a deputy. The Commissioner will be Joe Mollica of Sunapee.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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