House committee sends NH budget to full House

AP News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2011 7:16 PM
House committee sends NH budget to full House

A New Hampshire legislative panel voted Thursday to send a proposed budget to the full House that includes an anti-union provision that drew 400 chanting protesters to Concord.

About 200 people jammed into the meeting room of the House Finance Committee, chanting slogans like: "What's Disgusting, Union Busting." Others crowded into the hall outside the room.

"We end up putting our lives on the line for you guys. You're taking our voice away," yelled one unidentified firefighter in the crowd.

Several times committee Chairman Ken Weyler warned the crowd to be quiet or be removed. At one point, someone yelled "liar" at Weyler, and he yelled for everyone to "shut up."

The scene was another flare-up in the intense national debate over union rights that has gone on since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began an attempt to ease that state's projected $3.6 billion budget deficit by eliminating collective-bargaining rights for most public employees. Tens of thousands of protesters have turned out at that state's Capitol.

The New Hampshire protesters Thursday specifically took issue with a policy change in a companion bill to the budget that attempts to force public employees to make major concessions at the bargaining table before their contracts expire or become at-will employees, whose wages and benefits can be changed by employers.

State Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican and the measure's sponsor, said it is intended to push the state workers' unions into making $50 million in concessions on health care and benefits. Without the concessions, 350-500 workers might be laid off, he said.

After order was restored, the committee approved the budget containing the collective bargaining provision as well as deep proposed cuts affecting thousands of New Hampshire residents that Democrats are calling morally disgraceful and fiscally irresponsible. Families with troubled children, the mentally ill and others used to turning to government for services are being asked to look instead to friends and churches in the budget the House will vote on next week.

Thousands of children and adults will lose access to mental services in the $10.2 billion proposed budget for the two years beginning July 1. Families with out-of-control children also will have to look elsewhere. The committee recommends repealing a program for troubled children in need of services called CHINS.

Hospitals wouldn't get $115 million in payments for caring for the poor _ on top of a proposed $20 million cut to the program proposed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch.

Lynch, who has criticized the committee for making what he says are unnecessary cuts, proposed spending $195 million less than this year's spending over the next two years on social services. The House committee's budget cuts much deeper _ proposing $555 million less in spending. Lynch's budget proposed spending $10.7 billion.

"Their reprehensible budget proposal will increase property taxes, kill jobs and put the lives of countless Granite Staters at risk. It will be the death of the New Hampshire advantage and our quality of life through dangerous, heartless and unnecessary cuts," House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli of Portsmouth said at a news conference.

Republican House Speaker William O'Brien defended the budget, saying New Hampshire needed a "transformative change" in its spending philosophy. He said people are going to have to do more to help themselves.

"Government is not there as a first resort. It is a last resort," he said.

The deep cuts prompted a call this week from the conservative Cornerstone Action to church and faith-based leaders to fill the gap created by lost government services.

"While many churches and faith-based organizations have done and continue to do incredible work in the mission field abroad, too often they have abdicated their responsibility, to serve our own neighbors, to the federal, state, and local governments," Cornerstone Director Kevin Smith said in a statement

But it isn't just social services that would be dramatically scaled back.

The committee proposes slashing the $95 million in annual aid to the University System of New Hampshire in Lynch's budget to $55 million.

To keep a House GOP promise to craft a budget without higher taxes or fees, the committee recommends eliminating a $30 surcharge on vehicle registrations. That meant $45 million less per year would be available for road and bridge repairs and ultimately less in aid to communities for their highway maintenance. The committee would shift some operational costs now funded with state money onto federal funding currently used for construction.

House Republican leaders set a spending limit earlier this year that they say will not be raised. If the revenue picture brightens this spring, they are adamant about using additional money to add to the state's savings or to reduce business and other taxes rather than restore spending cuts.