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The making of a budget

Finally, after intense debate a budget agreement is reached.

There were about 40 committees of conference last week but the big one dealt with the state’s budget for the next two years. And there were plenty of emotions surrounding the deliberations.

I felt more than once that the negotiations between the House and Senate were going to blow up and end any chance of getting a budget. There were other times when I must have had at least a little smile when I heard the House conferees agree to the Senate position on many issues and no smile and disappointment when others were turned down by the House.

Gov. Maggie Hassan graciously called on Friday afternoon to thank me for my work on the budget saying she thought it was a good product. I venture to suggest that she was having different thoughts 48 hours before when the Democrat House conferee majority and Senate majority were pretty upset with each other.

Agreement was finally reached around 3 a.m. on Thursday morning. The Committee Chair, Representative Mary Jane Wallner of Concord requested that we return at 10 a.m. for a final vote. In the end, it was around noon before all the documents could be prepared, a final vote taken and each conferee trooped to the Office of Legislative Services to “sign off” on the committees’ report. It was time to head home to recapture some of the sleep lost over the past few days.

In summary, the budget will spend more money than the current budget, around $400 million over the biennium, but less than the House version of the budget. Almost all of the increased spending comes from Washington.

There are no new fees or taxes or increases. To claim that, the committee turned down $5 increases for the salt water fishing license and the marriage license fee. The Senate Finance Committee Chair, Chuck Morse of Salem, said from day one that we would produce a budget without tax and fee increases. He met his goal.

Increased spending went to mental health services; disabilities wait list, higher education and Children in Need of Services. LCHIP funding is fully restored from cuts in the present budget. The state’s UNIQUE scholarship program that was dismantled two years ago has been reassembled.

Here are some specifics in the budget agreement:

-- The House in the final round of votes accepted the Senate revenue plan. The Senate increased revenue estimates made in March by the House. But the House Ways and Means Committee just a couple of weeks ago said they had found nearly $50 million in new money.

That was untenable to the Senate. Senate conferees held firm and in the end the House acceded to the Senate numbers. State government gets in trouble when overly optimistic revenue numbers are projected. Government spends at the higher levels but when the money does not come in, governors have to issue executive orders to cut spending. If money comes in over estimates in the next few months, legislators will find many ideas to fund and will do so through legislation.

-- Medicaid expansion, part of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, was a major issue. A flurry of stakeholder generated emails and phone calls targeted to some Senators certainly gave insiders something to talk about but the impact on seasoned legislators was nil. Senate conferees understand the issue but Republicans asked for a few months of study. As Senate President Peter Bragdon of Amherst pointed out, when a casino was proposed the House held two dozen meetings to study it and debate it. That’s after Governor Lynch’s study commission on expanded gambling spent eight months looking into the issue.

The Senate has not had the opportunity to even hold a public hearing on Medicaid expansion. Negotiations were often behind the scenes but I can assure they were intense. In the end, conferees agreed to a study commission that will report its recommendation by Oct. 15. At some point after that, the legislature will vote on a bill to expand Medicaid.

-- A pay raise for state employees hit the conferees like a bomb on Monday just three days before legislative rules required the conferees to complete their work. Most employees will get three raises over the next 18 months that will total about six percent. The cost is $16.9 million.

When working on past budgets and employee contract costs were brought to the committees of conference they came to us with a source of money. The money might be found in the Department of Administrative Services or in Treasury in a category called “funds not otherwise appropriated.” To pay for the new contracts, the conference committee accepted some new cash revenue received in the last couple of months and was forced to reduce spending in other areas. State employees should be grateful.

Somebody else had to pay some of the cost and the Department of Health and Human Services took the hit. The HHS Commissioner is now budgeted to find seven million dollars of savings in his department to return to the state coffers at the end of the biennium.

Everyone has something they do not like in the new budget. But it is balanced and should get a strong bipartisan vote when the House and Senate vote on Wednesday. It was a job well done and a fine example of democracy at work in New Hampshire.

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

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