- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Legislative leaders and Gov. Maggie Hassan may be cheering the newly minted state budget deal as a show of compromise that makes New Hampshire different from Washington, D.C.

But from rank and file lawmakers, state agencies and social service advocates, reactions to the deal amount to little more than, “Finally.”

Almost three months after Hassan vetoed the Legislature’s $11.3 billion budget, she signed a state spending plan Wednesday that makes only two major changes. It gives a pay raise to state workers that had been negotiated with the union but left out of the Legislature’s budget, and it ties the second round of business tax cuts to a revenue trigger aimed at avoiding a budget hole.

For everything else - from mental health and substance abuse programs to road and bridge projects to the university and community college systems - the deal gives them exactly what they would have gotten in June. Without a budget, the state kept running at last year’s spending levels under a temporary plan, leaving agencies and services without expected increases.

The new budget, for example, doubles the money in a key fund aimed at fighting drug and alcohol addiction. Spending on substance abuse under the temporary plan was “a far cry from what the true need is out there,” said Kate Frey, advocacy director of nonprofit New Futures.

Because of the stalemate, home health care providers waited three months for a 5 percent rate increase, New Hampshire Hospital couldn’t open a 10-bed mental health crisis unit and the Department of Transportation almost had to delay repaving projects on the turnpike system.

Among advocacy organizations and Democratic lawmakers that are part of Hassan’s key constituencies, some offer a full-throated defense of her veto while others were plainly ambivalent.

“The governor had her reason for vetoing the budget, and it doesn’t really matter if I agree with those reasons or don’t,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat and former chair of the budget writing House Finance Committee.

Smith, like other Democrats, said the deal reached this week is far better than the vetoed plan. No Democratic lawmakers publicly challenged her veto.

“I absolutely think the governor fought tooth and nail for everything she got,” said Democratic Rep. Lucy Weber of Walpole.

The lack of enthusiasm over the deal from rank-and-file lawmakers was apparent on the House and Senate floor. The only Democrats who publicly backed the plan were members of House and Senate leadership. On the Republican side, House leaders resorted to pleading with members to pass the deal.

Now that a deal is complete, all eyes turn to the 2016 elections. The budget provided cover for Hassan to delay a decision on whether to seek a third term or run for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte. The lack of a decision hasn’t stopped outside groups from running negative ads about the veto and the state political parties are already in full spin mode.

“After inflicting pain and suffering on the State of New Hampshire, Gov. Hassan has been humbled by her embarrassing request to override her reckless veto,” the state Republican party declared.

And the Democrats?

“It’s unfortunate that because of Kelly Ayotte’s political meddling it took so long for Republicans in the legislature to finally come to the table and negotiate in good faith,” the state party said in a statement.

Now, voters who paid little attention to this summer’s budget battle are sure to hear about it again and again, regardless of Hassan’s decision.

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