Editorial: N.H. Budget Deal; Lawmakers’ Creditable Compromise

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Those who had forgotten how divided government can be more than just a venue for bickering, rancor and stalemate received a welcome reminder from lawmakers in Concord last week. Negotiators from the Democratic-controlled House and majority-Republican Senate bridged significant gaps between their two budgets and agreed upon a two-year spending plan that achieves several important course corrections for the state. Members of both parties will find elements of the budget difficult to swallow when the House and Senate vote tomorrow, but that’s unavoidable when ideologically clashing camps wish to do more than exchange salvos.

To appreciate what was accomplished, recall what the political landscape looked like when lawmakers arrived for the new session in January. Control of the House had switched over to the Democrats, who were determined to undo much of the work of the previous session pushed through by Republicans committed to shrinking state government. Democrats also made significant gains in the Senate, although not enough to take control. Senate Republicans vowed to use their slim majority to thwart the House — provide a “firewall,” according to Senate President Peter Bragdon of Milford. Meanwhile, the governor’s office remained in the hands of a moderate Democrat, albeit a first-termer — Maggie Hassan, who proposed providing a significant amount of the revenue needed to restore spending in some key areas by allowing the state’s first casino.

The Legislature came closer than it ever has to approving expanded gambling, but the measure still died in the House after receiving strong support in the Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate managed to fulfill Bragdon’s promise of blunting House Democrats by killing several attempts to put additional revenue at the disposal of state government, including a several-step increase in the gas tax to pay for transportation projects and a raising of the cigarette tax. (That levy still will go up 10 cents, returning to its former level, because the last Legislature’s reduction in the tax failed to produce the additional revenue that the tax-cutters had predicted.) The Legislature also declined to repeal the controversial stand-your-ground law, which broadened the circumstances when firearms may be used in self-defense.

But — and this is an important but — the Legislature still managed to restore funding to higher education (in return for a pledge not to raise in-state tuition) and mental health services. Among the many acts of recklessness committed by the previous Legislature, those two stood out — both in terms of severity and wrongheadedness. Some of the money to pay for the increased funding will come from a surplus predicted for the current fiscal year, some from across-the-board cuts specified for a number of departments and agencies, and some from possible personnel cuts (although state employees will receive the first raise they’ve gotten in more than three years).

On a couple of key issues — voter ID and Medicaid expansion — the two sides worked out genuine compromises. The Republican effort to intensify scrutiny of voters’ qualifications — which they view as protecting the integrity of the ballot and Democrats see as an attempt to harass and disenfranchise likely Democratic voters — remains on the books, but implementation has been delayed. Lowering eligibility requirements for Medicaid, which would be funded almost entirely by the federal government and would provide insurance to 58,000 residents who now lack it, was shunted to a study committee. Because the committee is required to produce its report by mid-October, a special session could approve expansion in time to spare future beneficiaries any harm from the delay.

Declining to raise the gas tax (partly to compensate for what has been a decline in revenue from that source), cutting money from the already overburdened court system and not immediately embracing the opportunity to offer health insurance to the working poor would be our nominations for the lowlights of the session. By way of accentuating the positive, we welcome the death of the governor’s casino proposal and restoration of higher-education and mental health funding. But we particularly welcome the fact that the state has returned to adult supervision, where lawmakers’ ability to make difficult decisions in a civil manner demonstrates respect not just for the work they do but for the role of state government.