The Bulletin Board

A deeper look at what did and didn’t make it into the budget

By: and - June 25, 2021 3:41 pm
Exterior of the State House

The bill passed with bipartisan support. (Getty Images)

During the hours of debate over the New Hampshire budget Thursday, several flash points took center stage. Democrats were concerned with the 24-week abortion ban added into the budget in late May. 

They railed against the package of tax cuts – from the business taxes to the elimination of the interest and dividends tax. And they took issue with the “divisive concepts” legislation, which limits how public school teachers and public officials can teach about structural racism and implicit bias.

But the debate left out a number of other pieces in the two-year budget, which heads next to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. Here’s what else the budget contains.

Voluntary paid family and medical leave

A longtime effort by Gov. Chris Sununu has made it into the budget this year: voluntary paid family and medical leave. 

While two Democratic gubernatorial campaigns in four years have turned the topic into a major political goal for the left, Sununu has proposed a program that differs from the Democrats’ proposal. 

Rather than the Democrats’ idea to mandate participation by private New Hampshire businesses and allow premiums to be deducted from employee payroll, Sununu’s program allows private employers to join the state program.

Critics have argued that an opt-in system will create a smaller and less stable insurance pool than a mandatory one; Sununu has said that a new approach – automatically providing it to the state’s 10,000 public employees – will create a big enough base to spread the risk.

Now, starting in 2023, that program will take form. 

Hiring caps at Department of Health and Human Services

The new budget limits New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services – the largest in the state – to 3,000 employees, and deploys a $22.6 million cut to that department over the next biennium. That cut is targeted to 226 unfilled positions that Republicans said indicated the department had room to contract.

The budget agreement also cuts all positions – in all New Hampshire departments – that have remained unfilled from July 2018 to July 2021.

COVID-19 fines refunded

The budget contains a provision welcomed by many Republicans: refunds for businesses fined during the pandemic. 

Under the budget agreement, five businesses that paid fines for violating COVID-19 mask and social-distancing rules will see that money returned.

The state already dropped fines against three other businesses whose appeals were still pending when the state of emergency ended. 

On June 14, the state Attorney General’s Office withdrew the fines totaling $2,500, saying the value of collecting the money was now “negligible,” especially given the resources it would take to fight the appeals.

Meals and rooms tax sharing with cities and towns

Lawmakers have voted to increase the share of the state’s meals and rooms tax that goes directly to cities and towns. Under the new budget, that share is 30 percent. 

It’s the closest the state has come in many years to the original intent of the 9 percent meals and rooms tax. When passed in 1967, that tax was intended to give towns 40 percent of what was collected. Over the years, the Legislature has cut that share; in 2019, it dropped to 21 percent.

The budget also reduces the meals and rooms tax from 9 percent to 8.5 percent. 

Forensic hospital

The budget includes $30 million in funding toward a new 24-bed forensic psychiatric unit on the state hospital grounds – an extension of the $8 million set aside in 2019’s budget.

That money is included thanks to the Senate. The House had axed Sununu’s $17.5 million request for a 60-bed hospital in its budget; senators, buoyed by higher revenue estimates, insisted the money be returned. 

Currently, the Secure Psychiatric Unit is located in the state prison and houses jail and prison inmates, people involuntarily committed by a court to a psychiatric hospital, and individuals with developmental disabilities who require intervention for extreme dangerousness. 

Stakeholders have widely agreed that those in the latter group should be treated in a hospital setting, not in a prison. But lawmakers, mental health advocates, and state officials have disagreed over the size and funding needed to care for those patients.

Assistance related to the FRM Ponzi scheme

After some partisan disagreement, the nearly 150 victims who lost nearly $20 million in the state’s largest financial scam more than a decade ago are a step closer to getting some compensation.

For the first time, the state budget includes money for the FRM Victims’ Fund created but never funded in 2016. 

The $10 million would be shared by the victims of the Financial Resources Mortgage Ponzi scheme who submit claims once the claims are validated by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Democrats had rallied against the assistance, arguing that the state has more pressing needs.

Medicaid dental benefit: a failed effort

Missing from the budget is $1.5 million Democrats had requested to provide dental benefits to people on Medicaid and expanded Medicaid. 

The idea had broad support in the Senate. Senators voted, 24-0, to include the money in its budget, following a nine-hour public hearing where dozens of people pleaded with senators to invest in dental care. 

Proponents had argued that good oral health can stave off other diseases and is critical to getting a job. 

But House Republicans disagreed, forcing the measure out of the budget during final negotiations without explanation. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]