After Gov. Chris Sununu released his $12.1 billion biennium budget on Thursday, the overall sentiment among Democrats and Republicans was “the devil is in the details.”
Those details will be hammered out in the next few months as the House and Senate make their recommendations to Sununu’s 2018-2019 budget. Overall it appears both parties believe it’s a solid budget with room for improvement. Republicans praised it for being “a realistic, conservative budget which is transparent, forward thinking and strengthens education, supports our cities and towns and focuses on solving real problems that have plagued taxpayers for years,” according to Senate leadership.
Democrats were glad that Sununu kept some of his campaign promises, but were also critical that he didn’t provide too many details on proposals they deemed important, including Medicaid expansion and full-day kindergarten.
“I am very concerned about the $500 million cut from state agency budget requests and what that could mean to the citizens of New Hampshire,” House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff said in a statement. “The governor’s budget address made no mention of the successful NH Health Protection Program, leaving serious unanswered questions for the 50,000 Granite Staters who rely on the program for their health care coverage.”
In his budget proposal, Sununu includes more than $50 million in spending to address an existing shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) fiscal 2017 budget.
In January, DHHS projected a $65.9 million dollar budget shortfall. Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers pushed back against the accusation his department overspent, claiming instead Medicaid costs did not decline as the legislature expected during the last budget debate. That put Sununu in the awkward position of writing a budget with an unexpected hole in it, while also figuring out how to handle Medicaid for the state.
As for the deficit, Sununu is requiring the commissioner to make quarterly reports to him and members of the legislature leadership “about where we actually stand on our true costs, so we can become a more nimble government that’s responsive, not just reactive.”
“As governor, I won’t make people wait until after an election to discover we may have a shortfall,” he said in remarks during a Thursday joint legislative session. “We have to be transparent. We have to be honest with the people and honest with ourselves.”
Democrats’ claim he didn’t mention Medicaid expansion is true. He only mentioned the program when talking about the DHHS deficit, since that’s where the department says its money went.
“And where we have failed in the past, I am pushing for true accounting of our Medicaid program so we can reconcile estimated Medicaid payments to actual costs,” Sununu said. “And as we go forward, be sure that we won’t wait two years to check in on them again.”
He doesn’t say if he plans to expand, repeal, or replace NH Health Protection Program. The Medicaid program in New Hampshire received bipartisan support in the legislature last year when lawmakers extended the program until Dec. 31, 2018.
That legislation gives Sununu wiggle room as he attempts to balance politics and health coverage for the state. As Washington debates repealing the Affordable Care Act, several states including New Hampshire are waiting to see how Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration handles the issue.
Sununu was reluctant to say anything about Medicaid on the campaign trail, commenting he was worried about financing the program in the long-term, but didn’t mention repeal. Not wanting to permanently fund the program, he told voters it was better to let the federal government make the first move.
Before the budget speech, Democrats waited to see if Sununu would fulfill his campaign promise of funding full-day kindergarten. His proposal includes $9 million a year for full-day kindergarten, but after the speech Democrats sought clarity on determining which communities get funding.
— NH Young Democrats (@NHYoungDems) February 9, 2017
Sununu said funds, which will be awarded in addition to education adequacy grants, would target the communities that need it most based on a community’s property wealth, the number of students on subsidized lunch programs, and communities with a high number of English as a second language students.
“So I am proud today to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across the state,” he added.
There’s a big distinction to be made with the state “mandating” full-day kindergarten and simply funding full-day kindergarten. Several Democrats sought to require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, but Sununu’s budget doesn’t make that a requirement. He’s leaving it up to the individual cities and towns, but they’ll receive more funds if they opt-in.
In towns that vote to implement full-day kindergarten, school districts presently only receive 50 percent of the state’s per-pupil grant for kindergarten students. Under Sununu’s plan, the neediest communities can apply for additional grants to make the program possible.
Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, who sits on the House Education Committee, said she wasn’t thrilled about Sununu’s full-day kindergarten funding proposal. Sullivan said it should be a local community’s decision, and could eventually lead to mandated full-day kindergarten.
— Victoria Sullivan (@VSullivan4NH) February 9, 2017
House Speaker Shawn Jasper told reporters Sununu’s full-day kindergarten proposal probably won’t be included in the House version of the budget.
“I think that is going to be a stretch,” he said. “I think if you looked around the hall, you probably didn’t see a lot of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans on that issue. We’ll have different priorities in some areas than the governor has, certainly. I don’t think there’s ever been a budget that’s gone into the House and come out looking the same way, but he’s given us a great starting point.”
The two-year budget must be passed by June 30 to go into effect on July 1 of the next fiscal year. The House Finance Committee will look at Sununu’s budget before making a recommendation to the full House. After the House passes its version of a budget, it goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which will recommend its own proposals to the full Senate, before going to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto in spring.