By John Toole
---- — Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget proposal promises college tuition relief, but a higher price for cigarettes.
Hassan, addressing the Legislature yesterday, embraced expanded gaming and a partnership with the federal government on health care.
“New Hampshire stands at the threshold of a bright new future,” Hassan said. “But we cannot sit back and wait for the innovation economy to develop. We must lead the way.”
The budget restores 90 percent of funding the formerly Republican-controlled Legislature slashed to state colleges and universities, allowing for a freeze on tuition, she said.
Hassan would accept federal funds to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act to cover more New Hampshire families. The governor’s office estimated $2.5 billion is available.
Hassan would raise the cigarette tax 30 cents, restoring a 10-cent cut from the last legislative session and adding 20 cents more.
The governor said the cigarette tax increase would still keep New Hampshire below neighboring states.
“Cigarette taxes nationwide have proven to be one of the most effective ways to prevent youth smoking,” she said, “and my budget proposes reversing the cigarette tax cut and increasing the tax by an additional 20 cents, which will still keep our cigarette tax below those of surrounding states.”
The budget also puts 15 more state troopers on the highways, two more judges on the Superior Court, doubles the research-and-development tax credit for business, and expands mental health services.
Hassan cut $500 million from agency requests, which her office said reduces general fund spending below 2008 levels.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, estimated the budget represents a $1 billion increase.
“We can’t support that,” Morse said. “I have my work cut out for me.”
Hassan acknowledged highway funding is a concern. She expressed a willingness to work with any legislator of either party toward a solution, but stopped short of a specific plan such as raising the gas tax.
“I think the governor has to answer that question,” Morse said.
Besides gaming another controversial component will be accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid.
“As both Democratic and Republican governors around the nation have said, it’s a good deal, one that will, among other things, allow us to save money in existing state programs, while increasing state revenues,” Hassan said.
The governor campaigned on restoring college funding.
“I have too often heard stories like the one told to me by a woman in Londonderry, whose daughter went to UMass Lowell because Massachusetts’ out-of-state tuition is lower than New Hampshire’s in-state tuition,” Hassan said. “That is unacceptable.”
Her budget also would deal with trouble in the mental health system, where people in crisis are coping with delayed admissions to the state hospital.
The plan includes adding community beds and support services.
“Dozens of people are waiting on a daily basis for critical mental-health care,” Hassan said. “Some leave without care at all, often putting themselves and those around them at risk of harm.”
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, didn’t like what he heard.
“There is a lot of spending and more taxes on people,” Baldasaro said. He envisions a more conservative budget once the Legislature’s work is done.
“The Senate will be more frugal,” he said.
Baldasaro didn’t like the cigarette tax increase nor Hassan’s idea of sending more money to the university system.
“They have been raising tuition and paying top dollar,” Baldasaro said. “They need to live within their means and slow down on the raises.”
Rep. Betsy Burtis, D-Derry, agreed with Hassan’s assessment that more must be done to fix highways and bridges.
“I would be willing to look at a gasoline tax increase as a way to pay for transportation issues,” Burtis said.
Morse said he did not think the Republican-controlled Senate would pass the cigarette tax increase, but was unsure about the House.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, didn’t like the cigarette tax proposal.
“I’m not a tax person,” Rausch said.
But he said he is pleased the governor has money in her capital budget for career and technical training centers to help educate people for the workforce.
“That is a great vehicle,” Rausch said. Hassan also promised to modernize state government, streamlining agencies and cutting red tape. An advisory commission would help guide those efforts.
“Together, these steps will help us increase efficiency and reposition state government for the future,” Hassan said.