EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 30, 2012

N.H. lawmakers brace for budget battle

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — Southern New Hampshire lawmakers expect the state budget, revenue policy and the economy to emerge as dominant themes for the legislative session that starts to unfold this week.

“A key priority is the budget and creating jobs in New Hampshire,” Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said.

A brand-new Democratic lawmaker agreed.

“Number one is going to be the budget,” Rep. Mary Till, D-Derry said. “It is going to be very difficult to do much.”

Till foresees “a big juggling act” for lawmakers as they try to balance spending priorities against limited revenues.

“The big issues start off with the budget,” Rep. Kevin St. James, R-Kingston, said.

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, a Democratic former state senator from Exeter, takes office Thursday. She set a conservative fiscal tone earlier this month, telling department heads to prepare budgets for the 2014 fiscal year that are 3 percent below their 2013 levels.

“While we are beginning to see signs of recovery and revenue growth, we face fiscal uncertainty,” Hassan said.

She stressed budgets could be adjusted, upward or downward, depending upon what happens with revenues.

She told department heads cuts shouldn’t violate federal laws or regulations, and they should strive for innovation and efficiencies, rather than across-the-board reductions.

Hassan has said she will oppose income or sales taxes, while striving to create jobs through tax credits and technical assistance to businesses.

Any pro-commerce measures pushed by Hassan or legislators will be well received in the business community.

The Business and Industry Association recently announced its public policy priorities, which include improving the state’s research and development tax credit, lower energy costs and workforce development.

“Our focus will be on policies and initiatives that encourage New Hampshire businesses to expand and hire more workers and businesses elsewhere to expand into or relocate to New Hampshire,” BIA president Jim Roche said.

Business interests will have bipartisan support.

“Business regulation, the economy and jobs — that’s the focus for Republicans,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry.

Look for renewed discussion of expanded gaming as the Legislature hunts for revenue options to pay for programs.

“Gambling will be in there,” St. James said.

Morse will be out front pushing for expanded gaming, which he sees as a potential revenue source to help with the budget, as well as something to boost the economy.

“I think it will create jobs and build out our highway system in New Hampshire,” Morse said.

He wants expanded gaming in his back yard at Rockingham Park, but concedes the track likely will have to compete for that opportunity through a state licensing bid process.

Hassan embraced expanded gaming on the campaign trail, but has insisted on a bid process.

Her presence in the governor’s office has encouraged proponents of expanded gaming. But the House, with a large flock of incoming legislators whose positions will be formulated in the coming months, is a potential roadblock.

Rep. Walter Kolodziej, R-Windham, looks at the state budget, emerging proposals from the newly Democratic controlled House and doesn’t see how the math possibly can add up.

“There is a lack of money, due to everything the incoming party is talking about doing,” Kolodziej said.

Republicans will resist revenue options that could burden people or businesses.

Ask Rep. David Thompson, R-Derry, what his big concern is for the coming session and he will reply in a word: “Taxes.”

Kolodziej said the Legislature will discuss funding for the Interstate 93 widening. There’s a need for another $250 million to finish the job.

Departing Gov. John Lynch has said that should be a priority for the state because of the potential economic development benefits.

Morse sees expanded gaming as a potential solution. Hassan has asked a transportation outreach team to look at infrastructure needs as she prepares a budget proposal.

Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement has said the method of funding is up to the Legislature, where discussion is likely to include gas tax and toll increases.

Kolodziej maintains the I-93 answer ultimately rests far beyond New Hampshire.

“This all depends on what the boys do down in D.C.,” he said.

Lawmakers will face new pressure for funding from the University System, which sustained major cuts the last two years under the Republican-controlled Legislature, as well as the Department Health and Human Services.

DHHS Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas recently called attention to delays for emergency psychiatric admissions to the state hospital. Mental health advocates in January plan to launch a campaign for increased funding of community-based services.

The Legislature will revisit a long-standing issue that has dominated debate the past 15 years: education.

There’s at least one constitutional amendment proposal concerning school funding that lawmakers will consider.

St. James said lawmakers, once again, will consider public education funding and how to define an adequate education. He expects debate over education reforms, too.

Gun control could be up for discussion, too, after the Sandy Hook School shootings in Connecticut.

“I’d like to see New Hampshire make an effort to get assault weapons off the street,” Till said.

That’s not the only major story of the past year influencing bills.

St. James is among lawmakers pushing for random drug testing of health-care workers and a registry of discharged health-care workers.

He said those are responses to the case where a former Exeter Hospital worker was accused of infecting patients with hepatitis C.

Baldasaro is sponsoring legislation he hopes will help both veterans and the state.

He would provide veterans with tuition help at state colleges and universities to entice them to New Hampshire.

Baldasaro also would ease state licensing for veterans and their spouses in trades such as plumbing and pipefitting, when they’ve gained appropriate experience from military service.

Some debate will provide lawmakers with relief from the weighty matters before them.

Thompson said he is among co-sponsors of a bill submitted on behalf of Derry Village School students to designate the potato as New Hampshire’s state vegetable.