Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget address, slated for Thursday, Feb. 14, will set a course for her administration.
“This will be what defines Gov. Hassan from the outset of her administration,” said former state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen. “Is she a liberal, a centrist...?”
Her budget proposal will outline her priorities, as well as her approach to increased, or not, spending. Hassan has signaled she’ll look to govern in the mold of Gov. John Lynch, with a bipartisan, moderate approach. Will she include expanded gambling? Will she propose more money for higher education? If so, where will that money come from? What about revenue projections? How conservative will they be?
“A balanced budget is the cornerstone of a strong economy, and a fiscally responsible balanced budget requires revenue estimates that are as reliable and accurate as possible,” Hassan said in a statement.
Arnie Arnesen, a liberal political pundit and talk show host, said Hassan is facing a disaster of a budget. She said typically when budgets are this tight, the federal government provides a bailout, but not this time. The problem for Hassan is that she was elected to be a responsible governor, but she’s stuck in a tough situation with little financial leeway, Arnesen said.
“This budget is about triage, nothing more,” Arnesen said.
Arnesen said she’s expecting very little in Hassan’s budget proposal: “She doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.”
She might tweak the gas tax, but that’s about it, Arnesen figured.
“She seems to be flashing a yellow light to those spenders in her party, among whom there has probably been some pent-up demand for higher spending,” Cullen said. “She’s certainly not flashing a green light, which is a good sign.”
For many, Hassan’s budget will be all about the revenue projections. Her instructing state agency heads to provide departmental budget proposals that are 3 percent less than their current budgets would seem to signal she’s not expecting to be adding a lot of spending in the next two-year budget. Cullen said he viewed that as an early good sign.
Hassan also created a revenue estimating panel of experts who will work to develop and update revenue estimates. The downside, Cullen said, was that Hassan declined to appoint a fiscal conservative to the panel.
“This was a gimme,” Cullen said. “Put Charlie Arlinghaus [head of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy] on that group. It still could have voted 3-1. That’s OK, but at least that’s outreach and it shows a different point of view. That would have been an important symbol. But she didn’t do that.”
Cullen and other conservatives are worried revenue forecasts will be too optimistic.
“It’s easy to balance a budget when you suppose you’ll have … extra revenue,” Cullen said.
Cullen is wondering how dependent on gambling Hassan and budgeters are. Gambling isn’t necessarily a certainty but many expect some form of expanded gaming to be on the plate. Arnesen is concerned with how many eggs are in the casino basket too.
Hassan vowed to veto a proposed increase in the beer wholesalers tax recently. Nixing that tax from the outset sent a message to the legislature to not even bother to send the bill her way, which saved time, Cullen said. Cullen said former governor John Lynch typically wouldn’t say anything on specific measures until they arrived at his desk.
While Democrats have said they’d like to raise the cigarette tax by 10 cents — matching the decrease from the last legislature — Cullen figures it will end up being raised more. He figures lawmakers pay the same price politically for raising taxes, regardless of how much they raise them.
Much of Hassan’s prioritizing will depend on her conversations with the Senate and one or two GOP senators, given the slim 13-11 GOP majority.