NH House budget writers scale back education plans

Norma Love, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- With no gambling revenues for New Hampshire to count on, House budget writers voted Tuesday to scale back on education proposals, recommending less money for the state's university system and moratoriums on new charter schools and school building projects.

The panel recommends giving the system about $12 million or about 20 percent less than it sought in exchange for a promise to freeze in-state tuition. Gov. Maggie Hassan had given the system about $55 million in additional aid in her two-year budget to make up for deep cuts Republicans made in the current budget.

The committee also recommends putting a moratorium on new charter schools and new school building projects. The last Legislature had adopted a new school construction system that would not be implemented for another two years if the moratorium is ultimately adopted. The only money the House panel included in its version of the budget is for the state's share of the debt for existing projects.

Republicans were outvoted by Democrats in an attempt to allow new charter schools and school construction projects.

"This is criminal to take away funding for charter schools," said state Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican and the committee's chairman last session.

Democrats argued there wasn't enough money for new projects.

The Finance Committee made the decision in putting together the House spending plan but did not have final budget figures available Tuesday. It planned on returning Wednesday afternoon or evening to take a final vote, but few changes were expected to be made. The House votes on the estimated $11 billion, two-year budget on April 3.

To save money, the committee also cut Hassan's projected spending needs for state programs for the blind and permanently disabled. They also trimmed aid to hospitals to help offset their costs for charity care and low reimbursement payments for treating Medicaid patients.

The committee trimmed aid increases in Hassan's budget because she counted $80 million from licensing a new casino that doesn't exist. The Senate passed a bill to authorize a single casino this month, but the House has never passed a bill legalizing video slots. Instead, the committee made spending cuts and included a 30-cent increase in the tobacco tax to $1.98 per pack of cigarettes. That is a dime higher than the full House approved just a week ago and is the amount Hassan counted on in crafting her budget.

The committee also is supporting Hassan's proposed aid increases to the community college system and her spending levels on services for the disabled and mentally ill. The panel also included $5 million of the estimated $8 million from a fee on deed transactions dedicated to a land conservation program. The committee recommends taking $3 million for other state spending — the same amount Hassan proposed diverting.

State Rep. Neal Kurk, a committee member and former chairman, complained that the budget allowed some department heads to seek additional funding by coming to a special joint legislative committee when they needed money. Kurk, R-Weare, said the corrections budget was unrealistically low in its overtime amount. Though both Democrats and Republicans have done it when they were in charge, Kurk said it was a bad idea because it cloaked the state's real spending needs.

"This is not sound budgeting, though we have done it before," he said.

Republicans also objected to giving Hassan authority to take money earmarked for special programs to deal with a deficit in the budget year ending June 30. Kurk said lawmakers should make those decisions.

The committee rejected an attempt to include a provision in a companion bill that would have placed a moratorium on wind and transmission projects. The proposal would have blocked the Northern Pass project to build a 180-mile transmission line from the Canadian border carrying power from Hydro-Quebec. Opponents argue New Hampshire would not benefit from the power but its landscape would suffer from the towers built to carry the power.