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NH House to vote on $10B budget

By Norma Love
Associated Press / March 27, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—Republican House budget writers are keeping a promise to get rid of an unpopular $30 motor vehicle registration fee enacted two years ago to solve a budget problem, but acknowledge making up for the lost $90 million in revenues comes with a cost to local road and bridge aid.

It's not just drivers who would feel the bumps if the House's proposed spending plan takes effect.

Thousands of mentally ill adults and children would no longer get services. The needy looking for assistance from their local welfare office might not get it. Hospitals would try to find ways to pass on tens of millions of dollars in reduced state payments for caring for the poor.

The $10.2 billion, two-year budget for the two years beginning July 1 would spend about half a billion dollars less than Democratic Gov. John Lynch proposed. Lynch had proposed cutting spending about 7 percent below the current budget.

House Republican leaders say his revenue estimates are too rosy. Republican House Speaker William O'Brien met with reporters last week to defend the budget as one that meets the needs of New Hampshire residents.

"This budget lives up to our commitment of making government live within its means, not raising taxes and fees and sets us on a path of sustainable spending that encourages growth," he said.

Lynch has been unusually vocal with his criticism of the House budget as making unnecessarily deep cuts that harm New Hampshire's safety net for its poorest residents, saying he is "deeply disturbed" by the direction the House is taking. The House plan also would eliminate money for Lynch's signature dropout prevention program and instead boost spending on charter schools.

The House-proposed spending levels are expected to pass, but the Senate is expected to restore some -- but not all -- of the cuts made in its budget.

Once the Senate adopts its version in June, the two chambers will attempt to negotiate a compromise, but the House has established a strict spending limit that could make agreement difficult if the Senate's plan is more in line with the governor's.

Lynch has not ruled out vetoing a budget he feels is too harsh.

Republican Gov. Craig Benson was the last governor to veto a budget, but not because it spent too little; rather, he felt it spent too much. That forced the state to operate until September 2003 under a continuing resolution. The budget Benson eventually signed spent $314,000 more than the one he vetoed.

Lynch's budget proposal funded most agencies at 95 percent of current spending levels. The House plan not only makes much deeper spending cuts, it also would change a variety of policies -- including those affecting labor, the mentally ill and the destitute -- to implement immediate and long-lasting cuts in services.

The House proposes permanently scaling back services to mentally ill children and adults by ending the mandate they be served regardless of ability to pay and by limiting services to available funding. For the life of the budget, people with less severe mental problems could lose services after four weeks if their condition is stable. Only children with serious emotional disturbances and who have had involvement with several agencies would qualify for state help.

Poor people who turn to their town or city as a last resort for cash assistance may be out of luck if their community's welfare budget has been depleted. The House proposes suspending a two-century old requirement for communities to provide the aid as long as current welfare budget amounts are maintained over the next two years. House budget writers did this so cuts at the state level would not fall on communities, but critics say that leaves people with only family, friends or churches to turn to.

Advocates for groups whose social service programs would be cut are joining forces with labor unions to fight the changes. Several thousand demonstrators are expected to rally against the proposed House budget on Thursday. Some plan to come Wednesday as well since it isn't clear which day the House will vote on the budget package.

Labor unions are galvanized against a proposed policy change that attempts to force public employees to make major concessions at the bargaining table before their contracts expire or become at-will employees, whose wages and benefits can be changed by employers. About 400 union members demonstrated against the proposal inside and outside the budget committee room last week, yelling angrily at committee members who included it in the budget package anyway.