Capital Comments: NH’s Budget Gap Remains No. 1 Issue

By State Senator Bob Odell

The bills ran the gamut from a “ridiculous” one to the cornerstone bill of this session addressing our huge and increasing budget deficit.

The Senate adopted rules earlier this year that required us to take action on all bills by May 12.  When leadership noticed that the House rules called for them to have a similar deadline but a day later, we changed our rules so that we could add an extra day to deal with legislation.

Never has the old adage about filling the available time been more appropriate.  We were in session on our original final day until 8:30 p.m.  The next day, our new day, we went until 12:30 a.m.

Of course, over the two days, we took a couple of dozen recesses for caucuses to sort out each party’s take on different bills and parliamentary motions.

And one political action committee for one party’s Senators had a fund-raiser scheduled and that required a three hour break.  One Senator had a long planned family photo event planned so he drove home, had the photo but missed a family dinner to return for the late night session.  I missed a dinner at the New London Inn to benefit the Ausbon Sargent Land Trust.

We started out on the first day with a gallery full of citizens interested in particular issues along with our normal cadre of lobbyists all sporting their orange badges indicating their profession.  At the end, it was only a small group of lobbyists left to watch the last hours before we finished our work.

For the next three weeks, the focus will be on committees of conferences that will meet to iron out differences between House and Senate positions on a long list of bills.  Committees of conference will vote on reports which will then be voted on by the House and Senate.  Both have to agree to accept the reports in order for the underlying bills to go to the Governor for signature.  Either body can kill a bill.

*   *   *

It was Senator Jack Barnes (Raymond) who named the “ridiculous” bill.  The bill (HB 1417) would allow restaurant owners or more specifically, a bed and breakfast owner who happens to be a member of the House of Representatives and sponsored the bill, to allow their pet dogs … called companion dogs in the legislation … to be in their food establishments when customers are being served.

Senator Barnes, who owned five McDonald’s at one time, graphically highlighted health care issues and sanitary concerns as he wound up and laid the “ridiculous” title on a bill deserving of that identification.  And believe it or not, the bill still passed with an amendment that if a patron had a service dog, then the pet dog might have to leave the restaurant area.

A senator leaned over to me and said “this is a new low for this session.”  And we wonder why folks question how serious we are about the big issues that affect the daily lives of our constituents.

*   *   *

There was, in fact, time for the major issue which is balancing the budget.

On the same day that the Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to reject the House’s work on a $181 million proposal (SB 450) to close the budget gap, the Senate majority came forward with a plan (HB 1128)  to close a newly projected $284 million budget gap that involves expanded gambling and the sale of state property.

Much of the new budget balancing plan contains cost cutting and anticipation of additional money from Washington ideas that were in the Governor’s recommendations as well as in the House proposal.

One new element, counting on fees from two casino licenses for $80 million struck some as very unrealistic.  The introduction of slot machines in some states, Maryland for example, have taken years and not months to put in place.  It is speculative, at best, to expect money from slots parlors or casinos by June 30, 2011 when the biennium ends.

And the day before the Senate voted on its budget package, the House soundly defeated for a second time in two years another gambling bill.  A majority of the Senate is comfortable with more gambling in the state; it is the exact opposite in the House.

The sale of state assets, too, sounds a little optimistic.  The idea is for a committee to meet and present ideas on properties the state should sell to raise $50 million between October 1 and the end of the biennium.

Senator David Boutin (Hooksett) pointed out that in the current budget there is $25 million to be generated by leasing the rest stops on Route 93 in Hooksett.  According to Senator Boutin, only one response was received to the state request for proposals and that one was rejected.  The idea of selling off $50 million in assets over a few months doesn’t seem likely.  And any asset sale proposed will find one or more legislators who have reasons to believe the asset is too valuable to be sold.

*   *   *

And if you were wondering, House Bill 1206 passed making cider the New Hampshire state beverage.  Cider beat out milk because milk is the official beverage of too many other states.  The bill was a project of fourth graders in Jaffrey. ###

Capital Comments, May 10, 2010

by State Senator Bob Odell

As the legislature struggles to come up with revenue, spending cuts and special financings to meet the budget gap of $220 million projected by the Governor, revenue fell dramatically in April.  That only worsens the situation.

The drop in anticipated revenue in April surprised many of us.  And it may be an indicator that a rebound in state revenue is further off than the Governor and others had predicted.  To see the severity of the situation one only needs to compare the $41.8 million shortfall in revenue last month with the Governor’s anticipated fall off in the entire next fiscal year of just $31 million.

In other words, the shortfall last month exceeds the shortfall predicated for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.  That means that the search for new revenue and more cuts in spending will not be over when we finish up on the current revisions to the budget before we adjourn in three weeks.

What happened in April?  The revenue plan called for income of $283 million and we took in $241 million leaving us with the $41.8 deficit.  That is short of the goal by 15 percent.

April’s numbers mean that the state is down $98 million for the year with two months left.  That is more than the Governor anticipated when he brought his new budget financing plan forward.  If this is a trend, much more serious work lies ahead.

On a percentage basis it is clear where the problems were in April:  business taxes were off by 25 percent, meals and rooms by 5 percent, interest and dividends by 27 percent, communications tax by 16 percent and the lottery by 15 percent.

April is when we get our annual share of the money from the master settlement agreement with the major tobacco companies.  The budget called for $49.4 million but we only received $44.2 million.  The payments to the states are based upon tobacco sales nationally.  Sales have fallen by 10 percent and thus the proceeds are about 10 percent below the budget plan.

Is April just an anomaly or an indicator that the revenue picture for New Hampshire state government will continue to be grim?  With our rainy day fund almost completely drawn down and new bonding not fiscally prudent, then where do we go?

And how do you face up to an even worse situation in the next biennium when there will not be the federal one time monies that helped us get through the current year?

Those questions weigh heavily on the minds of lawmakers as we face an important package of budget cuts and new revenue options.

*   *   *

The House is working on a $182 million package of cuts and new revenue.  Additional money would come from an increase in the fee to get married that would bring in $800 thousand of revenue annually.  There would be a tax at the time of death on estates over $2 million for $10 million of revenue and a tax on the generation of electricity for $4.5 million.

The price of the weekly Market Bulletin published by the agriculture department will go up $3 for a year’s subscription.  That will bring in $12 thousand of added revenue and shows how minor are some of the proposed changes.

On the other side of the ledger, the repeal of the campsite meals and rooms tax and the repeal of the LLC tax will take away $19.5 million in revenue next year.

Once the House takes action, there will be long hours of debate and negotiation with the Senate as agreement is needed to get the budget at least looking a little more balanced.

*   *   *

We all are proud of our local firefighters who are always there to save lives and protect property.  Claremont can take special pride in the recognition given to two of its firefighters, Capt. Alan Chamberlain and Lt. Brian Rapp, who were recognized as New Hampshire Heroes at a ceremony on the State House plaza and a reception in the Executive Council Chambers.

The annual Hero Awards Program is a project of the New Hampshire Union Leader and sponsored by Citizens Bank.  Nominees have “exhibited extraordinary bravery risking their own lives to save or attempt to save someone else.”

Alan and Brian certainly earned their heroes award.  In February of last year, they crawled on their hands and knees through thick black smoke in a burning building to reach an unconscious woman in an upper floor apartment.  They were able to scoop her up and carry her out to waiting EMTs.  Her dog, too, was rescued and both survived.

It was exciting to sit with City Manager, Guy Santagate, and firefighting colleagues and friends and family of Alan and Brian as they received their award from Governor Lynch.  Congratulations to Alan and Brian and thanks to every firefighter and first responder for all they do to keep us safe and secure.

*   *   *

It may have rained hard but it was still worth it to walk in the 4th annual “Steppin Up to End Violence” event to benefit Turning Points Network.  Turning Points is our area’s agency working to prevent domestic and sexual violence.  They also work with children to prevent bullying.  Turning Points does great work and a morning’s walk is the least we can do to support them.

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