In the end, the state Senate’s $10.3 billion budget proposal wasn’t all that different from the budget the House of Representatives passed in March.
Initial comments by Senate leaders in early April suggested the Senate would be restoring many of the cuts the House imposed. The Senate ended up restoring about $75 million worth of cuts, not insubstantial but not nearly as much as many were hoping.
“I think the Senate budget is remarkably similar to the House budget,” said Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord. “There were some slight differences, but the bottom line is that both budgets are very similar.”
The budget passed the Senate last week on a party-line 19-5 vote.
“Crafting this budget was a difficult task,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in a statement. “But I’m proud to say Senate Finance rose to the occasion. This budget is designed to strengthen our state’s fiscal situation for the next biennium as well as the future, but it is just a first step. We will continue to make reforms over the summer, into the fall and throughout the next legislative session. We will continue to hold the line on spending and look for additional savings.”
The Senate’s proposal represents an 11-percent decrease in spending from the current two-year budget. The budget includes revenue growth of 1.3 percent and a surplus of $30 million to beef up the state’s reserve fund.
The Statehouse lawn was full of protesters leading up to the passage of the House’s budget. The Senate didn’t get hit with nearly the same level of protest, but many of the House’s cuts remained. The Senate did remove a measure that would have weakened collective bargaining rights. Hospitals and the state University System were hit particularly hard.
The Senate did restore some funding for people suffering from mental health issues and developmental disabilities. So the Senate attempted to help out the two most vulnerable populations in the state — both would have modest increases from the year before. But the rest of the budget would be a significant reduction, Arlinghaus said.
Democratic senators fought to restore funding to a number of programs, but their efforts proved fruitless.
Arlinghaus said there was less than one percent difference in spending between the two bodies’ proposals. Neither, he said, resembles Lynch’s proposal from February. Revenue estimates have changed since then. Many thought Lynch’s revenue assumptions were a little too optimistic at the time, but his budget was largely lauded as a solid first step. Lynch’s budget proposed spending about $244 million more than the Senate proposal.
“I think the Senate did exactly the right thing,” Arlinghaus said. “The money is not there. We need to get our spending in line with revenues. Spending had to be cut dramatically. They had the right priorities. They cut Health and Human Services less and everything else more.”
The two bodies will need to meet in committees of conference to iron out their few differences. Arlinghaus figured it wouldn’t be a difficult process.
The big question will be how the House responds to the Senate’s revenue estimates, which are a little bit greater than the House’s. The Senate will also need to justify the slight increases to people with mental health issues and developmental disabilities. The
House would have to agree to those revenue estimates.
“I think they should, but it’s hard to know if they will,” Arlinghaus said.
If the House does agree with the estimates, then the question is whether the House would agree that those are the right areas to add back in money.
“Once you resolve those two issues, everything else is just details,” Arlinghaus said.
While many expected more restoration from the Senate, Arlinghaus said their hands were tied by a lack of money.
House Speaker William O’Brien called the Senate’s revenue estimates “realistic” in a statement. He said the primary difference between the two budgets was that the Senate took Lynch’s word that he would balance the current fiscal year’s budget. O’Brien charged that Lynch hasn’t done anything to meet that demand just yet.
Too much risk?
Naturally a budget that cuts as much as this one proposes to do presents some risk.
“There’s always a risk,” Arlinghaus said. “But if you think about it, there’s risk in that we’re cutting public television entirely or grants to the arts. But we’re in difficult times. Those are areas that can be curtailed. I don’t think it’s a risk as much as it’s an adjustment.”
Officials say there just wasn’t enough money to justify restoring funding.
“I would have been disappointed if they’d restored more,” Arlinghaus said. “This budget needed to make significant cuts. The only way to add more money would be to have an unbalanced budget.”
Any sign of a veto?
Though both the Senate and the House could override a veto by Lynch, Arlinghaus said Lynch needs to make it known if he is thinking about vetoing a budget bill.
“He has to tell us that,” Arlinghaus said. “If he is thinking about a veto, what does he want added back in and where is the money coming from to pay for it?”
“He needs to propose something or he needs to just sit back and sign whatever they produce,” Arlinghaus said. “He can either participate or watch, but it’s his choice.”