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Sen. Forrester: Restoring Rainy Day Fund A Priority, Raiding Dedicated Funds Not An Option

Chris Jensen

With the House having passed its $11.2 billion two-year state budget this week, it’s now up to the state Senate to come up with its own version of a spending plan.

Jeanie Forrester is a Republican from Meredith and chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

She joined Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about the task ahead.

There’s a perception by some that the Senate will simply start from scratch, without any regard for what the House ended up passing. How accurate is that?

I don’t think that is accurate. The House did some good things. And there are things in their budget that we will make different choices.

We saw at the Statehouse Wednesday a lot of concern about proposed cuts to substance abuse treatment programs and programs for people with developmental disabilities.

You’ve talked about making sure the budget protects the state’s most vulnerable residents, so what do you make of the perception that lawmakers see those as places where cuts can be made?

To be clear, you’re talking about lawmakers in the House. I think the in Senate, if you’ve looked historically at the last couple budgets that I’ve been involved in, our most vulnerable citizens have been a priority in the Senate and will continue to be a priority going forward.

As you know, the House budget takes $51 from the state’s renewable energy funds. You’ve taken a firm stand against raiding dedicated funds. Do you see that move as a raid and what about the threat of a lawsuit, should it go forward?

I do see that as a raid and we have been very clear about raiding dedicated funds. I think we need to as a Legislature continue the practice we have started, which is not raiding dedicated funds.

In not raiding them, how do you make up for that shortfall?

We will scrub the budget when it comes over to us to see what the House has done. Of course, we’re going to rely on Senate revenues from the Ways and Means Committee, so we’ve got a ways to go. And as you probably know, the revenues were ahead by $35 million in March, so I think we’re going to have a better idea of what we’re going to have to work with.

One move the House made Wednesday was to expand Keno in bars and restaurants, which could bring in another $8-12 million a year to the state.

A similar proposal died in the Senate last year. Any reason to believe the thinking has changed in the Senate?

I don’t personally support Keno. I really don’t have a sense of it yet in the Senate. Again, we’re going to look at all the revenues and rely on estimates from Ways and Means. So I don’t have a sense what’s going to happen just yet with Keno.

As you know, the House proposal virtually drained the state’s Rainy Day fund. What’s your hope for re-establishing that?

We’ve submitted various pieces of legislation to rebuild the Rainy Day fund, so it will be a priority for us. When the then-treasurer Katherine Provencher came before the Senate Finance Committee the last time around, she told us that we were woefully inadequate in our Rainy Day fund. We should probably have $70 million to $140 million in the Rainy Day fund.

You’ve talked about the importance of lowering business taxes in the Senate budget, but projections are what’s been proposed could lower state revenue by $100 million.

The idea by Republicans is that would spur economic growth, but in the meantime, doesn’t that money have to come from somewhere in the budget?

I don’t think so. I think that as we look at how the economy is improving and the way that we’ve set up the BET and BDT reductions over a lengthy period of time, the expectations are the revenues will come in as it spurs economic development with the increase in the economy. And with the way that we’ve got it built out, there won’t be an impact, that we will still see an increase in revenue.

What the future of Medicaid Expansion? The House budget calls for ending the program, but the Senate, which supported the plan, has voted to delay action until next year on whether to keep it going.

The reality is there are nearly 40,000 Granite Staters now relying on that program, so will just have to wait another year for a definitive answer on whether it continues?

I think that’s the plan in the Senate. In the last budget, if you recall, the governor put Medicaid expansion in the budget. We pulled it out. We said it was an important issue to deal with separately. It does sunset per the law in 2016. We feel it is an important issue that needs to be deal with separately and we will. We’re waiting to for a track record to see that the program is working; that we’re seeing a reduction in uncompensated care. So far, we’ve seen some reductions, which is good news for us, but we’re going to deal with that separately. It’s an important issue that shouldn’t be in the budget.

What’s your thinking as far as timeline is concerned with all the considerations you’ve got going on?

We’ve put our scheduled together and we start on Monday and then we start with the budget presentations. In early May, we’ll have a public hearing. It’s our hope and expectation that we’ll have something by the end of June.

There were predictions that the House vote could have been very raucous, could have been a marathon session. You don’t see anything like that happening in the Senate?

No. I think in the Senate, we work very closely together and we try to have a lot of really good communication so that there isn’t drama in the Senate. One of the concerns I will have to say is if you saw the press release from the Senate Democrats, it concerns me a little bit about the tone of their press release. I hope that we have a good working relationship. They’re not attacking Republicans in the Senate, but they go after the House and they talk about the Koch brothers endorsed the O’Brien-Jasper budget and that now the Senate has to work together to fix it. It’s just a tone I hope that stays or ends with their press release because we do need to be working together. We need to put the rhetoric aside.

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