AP NEWS

Sununu proposes $13.1 billion, two-year budget

February 14, 2019 GMT

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Gov. Chris Sununu proposed a $13.1 billion, two-year state budget Thursday that he said will deliver better results for individuals without burdening taxpayers.

“Government is not here to guarantee much,” he told lawmakers in his second biennial budget address. “But opportunity — equal opportunity for everyone, for you, for your family, your business, your kids — that’s our job. To set up those doors of opportunity for people to charge through.”

Education was a focus throughout the speech, and Sununu got a standing ovation when he announced he wants to spend $63.7 million in one-time, surplus funds to provide school building aid for property-poor districts. His budget also includes increased funding for special education to $26.5 million, the highest level since 2012, and increases tuition and transportation aid to its highest level ever. That money — $8.6 million — in particular will help high school students travel to community colleges as part of the New Hampshire Career Academy initiative he announced last month, Sununu said.

Sununu also called for $32.5 million over two years for a new loan forgiveness program to encourage college graduates to work in the state, and a $24 million expansion of college nursing programs.

“The answer to the higher burdens of college debt is not to give free diplomas to everyone, it is to create a system that incentivizes students to stay and work in our great state,” he said.

Mental health was another area of focus. Sununu said the state could achieve two-thirds of the goals outlined in its new 10-year mental health plan in just two years. He called for spending $40 million to build a new facility on the grounds of New Hampshire Hospital so patients who need secure treatment but have committed no crimes are no longer held at the state prison.

He also proposed new psychiatric beds around the state to alleviate a growing crisis of patients waiting in emergency departments, and $3 million to encourage hospitals to build psychiatric units. Democrats have proposed similar legislation to spur hospital construction, and though Sununu had expressed concern about their plan to use surplus funds for that purpose, his proposal would do the same.

Other highlights of the budget include legalizing sports betting, increased funding to help victims of domestic and sexual violence, and the creation of a Department of Military Affairs and Veterans Services.

While Sununu told lawmakers his budget is free of politics, he devoted part of his address to expressing concern about legislation making its way through the Legislature, which is now controlled by Democrats. He criticized lawmakers for proposing billions of dollars’ worth of new spending without viable ways to pay.

“You have to decide, are you going to spend money on bloated government or stand with taxpayers?” he said.

Democratic leaders said they didn’t appreciate what they heard.

“For a speech that was billed by him as being above partisanship, it was one of the most highly partisan budget speeches I’ve heard. There were threats contained within it, and that’s not what I would consider a bipartisan approach,” said House Majority Leader, Rep. Douglas A. Ley, D-Jaffrey.

Republican legislative leaders said Sununu’s proposed budget builds on their party’s good work.

“This budget builds upon the great work that was done in the last budget process focusing on programs that help our most vulnerable citizens while promoting a business friendly environment,” said Senate Republican Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, in a statement.

Two years ago, when Republicans led both bodies, the House failed to pass a budget for the first time in decades. The Legislature ultimately approved an $11.7 billion plan over the objections of Democrats who complained the plan cut taxes for businesses while leaving too many others in need. Sununu proposes continuing those tax cuts, while Democrats have proposed legislation to freeze them at the current rates.