Senate passes budget unanimously; Dems strike deal on immigration checkpoints
The Senate passed a budget Wednesday that included more money for Medicaid and a deal on immigration checkpoints. (Amanda Pirani | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The New Hampshire Senate on Wednesday passed the $15.2 billion budget its finance committee recommended, preserving the House’s Medicaid rate increases and state employee raises.
The budget also included a last-minute compromise on immigration checkpoints, potentially resolving an issue that had sharply divided the parties, law enforcement, and civil rights advocates.
The outcome of an equally divisive issue however remains uncertain. The House had included $50 million to resolve a retirement glitch for nearly 1,800 state troopers, local law enforcement, and firefighters.
That group saw their benefits reduced under a 2011 change to the New Hampshire Retirement System. The House budget would have adjusted the start date of those changes and entitled them to a refund of lost retirement pay over the next 10 years.
The Senate voted along party lines to remove that provision over cost concerns, but Sen. Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, indicated conversations may continue into Thursday morning. Lawmakers could attach the retirement changes to a separate bill, but both chambers must vote on all bills by Thursday.
The Senate passed the budget unanimously, although Democrats voted against one piece that would end the Interest and Dividends Tax early. The House could take it up as early as Thursday.
Senate Republicans agreed to Democrats’ demands that law enforcement give advance notice of immigration checkpoints. But in a compromise proposal from Senate President Jeb Bradley, agencies would have to publish that information only on their agency’s website, not elsewhere such as local news publications or on social media.
Eliminating advance notice completely risked losing the support of House Democrats when they take up the Senate’s budget.
“I stand before you offering this as a compromise that hopefully brings all of us together,” Bradley said, “and hopefully offers our friends on the other side of the wall a compromise that brings all of them together.”
The Senate passed a few budget amendments Wednesday that would increase spending, but the dollar amount was not available by deadline.
Senators kept several significant investments the House had included in its budget.
Those included an additional $134 million for home health care providers who rely on Medicaid. Dozens, such as mental health providers and those whose work allows people to avoid a nursing home, warned they couldn’t survive without a major increase.
The Senate also kept the House’s $100 million pay raise for state employees; they’d see a 10 percent increase in July, followed by an additional 2 percent increase next July.
The Senate added millions for its own initiatives.
Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, sponsored two that would spend about $15 million to expand access to affordable, quality child care and increase supports for families before, during, and after pregnancy.
But the Senate defeated nearly 20 amendments, nearly all sponsored by Democrats, on issues ranging from easier access to free and reduced-price school lunch to a teacher recruitment initiative.
Nearly 6,000 children in New Hampshire are eligible but not signed up for free or reduced-cost school meals, Whitley told senators. A complex application form and stigma are blamed for under-enrollment.
Democrats had hoped to close that gap by automatically enrolling Medicaid-eligible students in the program. That failed, despite a compromise amendment that would have piloted the effort to 10 communities rather than the whole state. Republicans defeated the amendment, primarily over concerns that it would increase state aid to schools.
Democrats tried to extend the House’s repeal of the state’s Interest and Dividends Tax from 2025 to 2027. As a compromise, the amendment would have raised the income eligibility threshold from $2,400 for most people to $50,000. Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, said that would reduce the number of people required to pay the tax to 20. She said the amendment would bring tax relief and preserve revenue for new budget items, such as the employee pay raise and increased Medicaid payments.
Whitley echoed that.
“These tax breaks aren’t for our grandparents or our parents as they’re retiring,” she said. “These are for the very top tier of our wealthiest Granite Staters. And who pays the price for that? It’s all of us. It’s all of our working families that will not get the benefits of the support that we so desperately need.”
The amendment failed along party lines.
One targeted teacher shortages in rural parts of the state with a $300,000 “incentive” program that would help teachers pay off school loans. Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, a West Lebanon Democrat, told colleagues a loan forgiveness program for those who have completed school was recommended by a legislative study commission as one way to reduce vacancies.
“I have never seen help wanted signs outside of schools and outside of fire stations,” said Prentiss. “And now I see both of those. This, again, is a way for us to deal with this.”
The budget passed Wednesday includes a separate recruitment program that would use federal money for stipends to help new teaching candidates pay for courses.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, was unable to eliminate Gov. Chris Sununu’s $1 million for a new civics textbook. Increasing civics education has been a much-discussed topic the last three years. Both chambers passed separate legislation that would increase civics education in schools. It is headed to Sununu’s desk.
The state hasn’t closed on a $21.5 million offer for the former 220-acre Laconia State School. In the meantime, Sen. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, proposed giving the city of Laconia $3 million to put in a sewer and water system.
He pitched it as an investment in affordable housing because the developer has proposed building nearly 1,600 homes, 120 of which are described as “workforce housing.” Senators rejected the idea after Bradley said the request should wait until the state has closed the deal.
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