New Hampshire House Democrats are putting the final touches on a $13.4 billion two-year budget that spends more and significantly departs from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu's proposal on mental health, education and other issues.
The House will vote next week on the plan being crafted by its Finance Committee. Top Democrats on the committee shared some details with reporters on Monday, saying their focus has been crafting a budget that provides property tax relief to towns and cities by boosting education aid.
Related: Josh Rogers spoke to NHPR's Peter Biello about the budget on NHPR's All Things Considered, and how it differs from the package drafted by Governor Chris Sununu. Listen to that here:
"I think we have a good document to present to the House," said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, chairwoman of the committee. "Every year for the last many years, we've heard how our schools and our communities are really struggling to fund our schools. And I think what you're going to see in our budget is a really good first step."
Sununu's proposal totals $13.1 billion, about $5 billion of which is general fund and education spending. The House finance proposal includes $5.5 billion in general fund and education spending.
While Sununu has proposed using $64 million in surplus money for school-building projects in property-poor communities, the House wants restore so-called stabilization grants to schools and adjust the formula used to send education money to towns and cities to benefit those with lower property values and higher percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That would amount to about $150 million in the second year of the budget and would be paid for by extending the 5 percent interest and dividends tax to cover capital gains.
The House plan eliminates the $40 million Sununu included for a new building to move the secure psychiatric unit out of the state prison and replaces the voluntary paid family and medical leave plan he has proposed with the governor of Vermont with the mandatory plan that Democrats in the Legislature are pushing. Republicans consider that an income tax, and Sununu will never support it, his spokesman repeated Monday.
"House Democrats have proposed over $300 million in new spending that would have to be paid for by the hardworking taxpayers of New Hampshire. Governor Sununu's proposed budget smartly invests in targeted areas of need without creating new taxes or raising any existing fees," Ben Vihstadt said.
House Democrats said they rejected most of the one-off spending proposals for local infrastructure upgrades that critics called Sununu's pet projects. In a statement, Sununu urged the Legislature to reverse course, and defended his plan to use one-time surplus funds for one-time projects instead of trying to expand government programs.
He also criticized Democrats for not including funding for the new secure psychiatric unit. Mental health advocates for years have been calling for an end to sending patients deemed dangerous to the prison unit, and the state has faced lawsuits over it.
"I am shocked that Democratic leadership went from applauding this initiative in my budget address to failing to fulfill New Hampshire's obligations in the state's 10 Year Mental Health Plan," he said in a statement. "New Hampshire families have waited over 20 years for a solution and it is unconscionable that House Democratic leadership is now telling them that it is 'too soon' to move forward with this solution."
Democrats said they still support the goal of moving the unit out of the prison, but more planning is necessary before deciding a new building is the answer. Their budget calls for moving the children's beds at the state psychiatric hospital to a new location and for creating 40 transitional housing beds, both of which would free up space at the hospital. Their plan also funds early intervention programs to treat mental illness and a mobile crisis team for children and youth.
"There are a lot of moving parts, and we just tried to start with what we thought would be worthwhile to start the process, going in all these different directions," said Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover.