The governor’s budget address is the starting point for the months of wrangling and compromises that will eventually determine where the state will spend its money.
In the budget released today Governor Hassan spelled out her priorities in key areas like education, healthcare and infrastructure.
Restoring cuts to the state’s public universities was a centerpiece of Maggie Hassan’s campaign for governor, and Education was at the center of her speech.
Hassan: “Ever-rising tuition rates can force many families to avoid even considering New Hampshire’s public colleges and universities, hurting our competiveness. If we hope to encourage job creation and innovative economic growth, we cannot keep losing our young people or fail to develop our workforce.”
Hassan proposed restoring 90% of the funding for the University System of New Hampshire, and 100% of the cuts to the community colleges.
The governor’s budget even included a $3 million dollar increase in next year’s allotment.
Ross Gittell, the Chancellor of the community colleges, says after two years of belt tightening, this money would allow for some expansion.
Gittell: “We really had to cut down on some programing, we had to rationalize some delivery, and this new budget as put forward by the governor will really let us meet the needs of industry, and help our students and help the state’s economy.”
But education initiatives also saw some cuts as well.
Governor Hassan took aim at the controversial education tax credit plan, which will give out $3.4 million dollars’ worth of scholarships in the next school year.
Hassan: “To help pay for these investments, this budget repeals the voucher tax credit that would have diverted millions of dollars in taxpayer money to private and religious schools with no accountability.”
Supporters of that program disagree.
Baker: “Nationally these programs are shown to save money, and significant amounts of money in the long run.”
Kate Baker with the Network For Education notes that yes, the state loses an average of $2,500 dollars in tax revenue per scholarship, but every student that leaves public schools for private ones is a student that public schools aren’t paying to educate.
The fiscal impacts of the tax credit aren’t yet completely clear: what is is that Republicans will fight this change.
And that won’t be the only fight in this budget.
On Health Care
Education wasn’t the only area where Governor Hassan offers an ambitious agenda: there’s also health care.
The biggest change will be expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, allowing low-income childless adults to enroll in the state/federal program for the poor.
That change will cost the state $80 million over seven years.
But it promises to bring in $2.5 billion in federal money.
Hassan is also calling for a $28 million investment in mental health services.
Hassan: “We can all agree that our mental health system is deeply strained. And though we won’t fix all of our challenges at once, it is time to resume our efforts to repair our mental health system.”
Those repairs start with money for community-based services; an increase in hospital psychiatric beds; and ten new crisis response teams.
Jay Couture with Seacoast Mental Health calls the Governor’s support a positive step.
Couture: “This is something we have been talking about for years. Should this be implemented, I think that it will greatly benefit some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Other vulnerable citizens helped by Hassan’s budget plan are those waiting for services on the developmentally disabled wait list.
She promises to fund those programs, in full.
Transportation infrastructure was another thing Hassan campaigned on.
She says New Hampshire needs to step up to the plate. The state’s highway fund is looking at a shortfall of $740 million dollars over ten years.
Hassan: “Maintaining and repairing our state’s roads and bridges and funding transportation projects are crucial for our economy.”
Years of neglect and underfunding, Hassan says, were at play when the Seacoast’s Sarah Mildred Long Bridge closed suddenly last month.
Bill Boynton at the Department of Transportation echoes the Governor’s concerns. He says New Hampshire’s road and bridges represent an $8 billion dollar investment. Yet, he says, the state will leave more and more roads and bridges to decay, if policymakers don’t increase revenue to the highway fund.
Boynton: “The last time the gas tax was increased in New Hampshire was 1991 and those dollars today are only 60% of what they were worth in 1991, and fuel continues to go up, salt prices, all the things we do continues to go up in costs so the costs are far outpacing revenue at this point.”
Hassan did not offer a specific solution to the state’s infrastructure woes.
She did, however, point to proposals from both Republican Senator Chuck Morse and Democratic Representative David Campbell. Morse would like to allocate income from a casino to fund highways, roads and bridges. Campbell is proposing an increase in the gas tax and auto registration fees.
On Paying For It All
While Governor Hassan didn’t leave lawmakers room to dicker on transportation issues, she was loud and clear on some things.
Hassan: “My budget includes $80 million from licensing one high-end, highly regulated casino.”
Hassan acknowledged that gambling has been a “difficult debate” in Concord for years, but she said with casinos on the horizon in Massachusetts, New Hampshire needs to act.
Hassan: “Will we let Massachusetts take revenue from New Hampshire’s residents to fund its needs, or will we develop our own plan that will allow us to address social costs and invest in our priorities?”
Another major revenue source for Hassan is a more time-tested one: higher cigarette taxes.
Hassan: “My budget proposes reversing the cigarette tax cut and increasing the tax by an additional 20 cents.”
Hassan anticipates $40 million from the increase; she expects another $22 million to come from fatter insurance premium tax collections under the expansion of Medicaid.
She also wants to suspend several tax changes recently enacted by Republicans. With a divided legislature, good relations with Republicans, at least in the GOP-held Senate, are crucial for Hassan.
But GOP leaders say 30 cents is way too much to add to the tobacco tax.
They also say if Hassan ends up supporting the higher gas taxes, which she did not rule out, this budget will be very pricey. Jeb Bradley is State Senate Majority Leader.
Bradley: “Senator Morse, Chairman of the Finance Committee, thinks on first blush it’s a billion dollars of new spending. That’s a lot of new spending.”
Bradley added, though, that it will take a little time to properly evaluate the full effect of Hassan’s proposals. As Hassan herself noted at the end of her speech, a final product demands cooperation, but she concluded,
“Let me be clear, we must end this process with a balanced budget, and I will veto anything else.”