Sensible budget finds compromise

In his inaugural budget, Gov. Chris Sununu and his team crafted a proposal for the Legislature that struck a fine balance between touting New Hampshire’s business advantages and funding the well-recognized priorities here.

Last Thursday, Sununu pitched a realistic $12.1 billion budget that flirts with conservative principles to slash business regulations and base state spending on revenue – the General and Education Fund goes up by about 2 percent in the next fiscal year – while appealing to moderates with more opportunities for our youngest students and more stringent guidelines in the Division for Children, Youth & Families.

The proposed budget includes $18 million targeted for full-day kindergarten programs, a very worthy investment that has the potential to improve education within just a few years. To further incentivize the next generation of workers, the proposal allocates $5 million in a scholarship program to help high school students to attend college or workforce training of their choosing in the state.

"We all know that our economy is improving, but I think we can all agree that it could be doing better – and we must do more to boost the opportunities of our workforce," Sununu said. "We need to unleash the potential of our economy to spur job growth and provide better opportunities for both businesses and workers throughout the state."

There is an increase in the appropriation for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, a statewide nonprofit aiding domestic violence victims, those with disabilities and the homeless. The group expects to assist as many as 750 more people annually with the additional funding, as well as boost staffing levels in more rural offices such as Berlin and Claremont.

Regarding the opioid crisis, Sununu requests reinstating Granite Hammer operations for law enforcement, a doubling of the Alcohol Fund and more coordination with the Office of Substance Abuse on treatment and prevention options. This administration creatively, and wisely, wants to target clinicians and nurses – in order to curb addiction rates – with a student loan debt forgiveness program. What better way to attract young medical professionals than to offer debt relief?

Sununu also seeks to dedicate 20 percent of the renewable energy fund to supplement low-income electricity relief programs and double grants to towns for infrastructure projects. School building aid is also receiving a boost.

These are sensible, commonplace solutions on which Democrats and Republicans agree. To attract business, New Hampshire needs upgraded roads and bridges, as well as better classrooms and the safest neighborhoods in New England.

There were, however, a few troubling items in Sununu’s budget.

Failing to mention the New Hampshire Health Protection Program is a huge question mark, unless the Sununu administration is choosing to first wait for movement from the White House. It is important to make a correlation between the present-day well-being of the state’s economy and the biennial budget, which is why it is confusing the administration is kicking down the road a very important can for 50,000 people here.

Given the fiscally conservative architects, it is a little alarming that this budget underfunds disproportionate share hospital payments, potentially violating a 2014 settlement ruling the Medicaid Enhancement Tax was unconstitutional. Hospitals agreed to drop any judicial challenge and pay the enhancement tax as part of the agreement, but certain levels of funding need to be sustained.

Overall, Sununu’s budget offers lawmakers a reasonable launching pad to debate New Hampshire’s priorities. The burden is on the Republican-led Legislature to work within this proposal and avoid pie-in-the-sky policies of the far right, last attempted by conservatives during the 2011 House takeover, that conflict with the values of Granite Staters.