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Sununu seeks deal with Dems on budget

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu points to a poster featuring highlights from his proposed budget on Wednesday, June 12, 2009, in Concord, N.H. As lawmakers get ready to reconcile competing House and Senate versions of the budget, Sununu outlined areas where he believes all sides can find common ground. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)

CONCORD – Citing what they call an “income tax” to support a mandatory paid family leave plan, Republican members of the New Hampshire Senate resoundingly refused to support the $12.9 billion budget Democrats passed last week on a party-line vote.

Wednesday, however, Gov. Chris Sununu seemed ready to work with House and Senate Democrats to negotiate a spending plan for the fiscal years of 2020 and 2021.

“We can do it, and a lot of folks in the state are counting on us to step up,” Sununu said during a Wednesday news conference. He did so while flanked by large posters highlighting his February budget proposal, what the House passed in April, the Senate version approved last week and what he called a “roadmap to common ground.”

“It’s a team effort, and I’ve been very encouraged over the last couple of months,” Sununu added. “We’ve got to do a lot of work over the next few weeks, and we want to be transparent about putting a plan forward that everyone can understand and everyone can find common ground.”

Sununu said he would consider compromises on education funding, Medicaid reimbursement rates and other areas.

However, he said he will veto the budget if it includes a mandatory paid family medical leave program, which he considers an income tax, and the rollback of scheduled business tax cuts. Both the House and Senate budgets include those provisions.

“Let’s remember what New Hampshire is all about. Let’s remember what Live Free or Die is all about. Let’s remember, why are we so successful? Why do we have opportunity today that other states don’t?” Sununu said. “We are different, and we’ve shown that both with frugality and keeping the tax rate low, we create opportunity.”

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He said budget cannot be constructed without stopping business tax cuts. However, he sees room for compromise with the governor in other areas.

“He’s a reasonable person, and as a reasonable person you’ve got to think about what’s best, in totality, for everyone in this state,” D’Allesandro said.

Sununu’s proposal called for spending $52 million on selected infrastructure projects throughout the state. On Wednesday, he said he could support the Senate’s plan to instead send $40 million in unrestricted revenue sharing funds to communities.

Sununu also said he would support restoring so-called “stabilization grants” to school districts at a slightly lower level than what the House and Senate have proposed.

Neither Sununu nor the House included funding to increase reimbursement rates to Medicaid providers, but the Senate approved spending $52 million for across-the-board increases. Sununu suggested a compromise of $30 million in targeted increases.

Also, Sununu originally proposed spending $26 million on a 60-bed secure psychiatric hospital. Wednesday, he said he may settle for 36 beds.

The House included no funding for a new facility, while the Senate proposed a 25-bed, $17.5 million facility.

House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, said House members of the committee of conference look forward to working with senators and Sununu next week.

“In a negotiation no one party will get everything that they want, but I am confident we will form a compromise that will work for all parties and the people of New Hampshire,” he said.

Very early Friday morning, the 14 Senate Democrats voted to pass the $12.9 billion spending plan. Nine Republicans were in opposition, while one GOP senator was absent.

In reaction to that vote, Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, did not mince words.

“Any budget that creates an income tax, raises business taxes, increases motor vehicle fees and creates a tax on swimming pools is irresponsible with taxpayers’ money,” Reagan said. “Their $150 million property tax increase was not enough, so they created an income tax to pay for their bloated budget and still could not close their $76 million structural deficit.”

However, Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said the budget “works for everyone.”

“Working together, we’ve passed a balanced budget that invests in mental health funding, addresses the opioid epidemic, protects the safety and well-being of children, prioritizes public education, supports law enforcement, and delivers much-needed meaningful property tax relief to New Hampshire cities and towns,” she said.