Senate lawmakers on Thursday advanced a plan to expand state conservation funding, while voting down an alternative supported by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Sununu wants to give the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, or LCHIP, money from the state's general fund – either $250,000 this year, or $500,000 over the next two-year state budget cycle, which lawmakers will start planning next year.
The bill the Senate passed Thursday, with bipartisan support, would instead increase the fee on home registry documents that funds the program.
This would raise an extra $1.5 million for LCHIP, which has given $37 million in matching grants to protect natural resources and historic landmarks in the state over the past 20 years.
Senator Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat from Portsmouth, sponsored the original creation of the program and says a fee increase will help it continue to grow.
“All this bill is asking for is to allow for an additional $10 to be collected,” she said, “to put more money into this extremely worthwhile, extraordinarily well run and very popular program that not only enhances our quality of life, but underlies our economy and supports travel and tourism.”
Fuller Clark also offered an amendment, which passed unanimously, clarifying that people can voluntarily donate to LCHIP. The Senate recently killed a bill that sought to expand LCHIP only using that mechanism. Sununu supported that plan, but lawmakers said it would be unreliable.
Right now, officials say LCHIP has a shortfall of $3.5 million and can only fund about half its applications, as conservation costs have increased and fee-based revenues have stagnated.
Senator Bob Giuda, a Republican from Warren, opposed Sununu’s plan to tap the general fund to meet that demand. He voted for the fee increase.
“While I’m not one to increase taxes, I will tell you that a $10 increase on a quarter-of-a-million-dollar home is negligible,” Giuda said. “I’m willing to support that for the interests of the heritage of the state.”
Republican Sen. James Gray of Rochester argued that homeowners often file multiple documents when buying a new home or making other changes to their deeds, meaning the fee increase could be more like $30.
Senator Jeb Bradley, the Wolfeboro Republican who offered the Sununu-backed plan drawing from the general fund, acknowledged that -- but said he supported the fee increase anyway.
Bradley says he offered the general fund plan in attempt to get Sununu to sign “something” rather than “nothing” for LCHIP. The governor vetoed a version of the fee increase bill last year and says he still opposes it.
Sununu says in a tweet that the Senate, with its votes Thursday, "turned its back on a compromise in favor of a mandatory fee."