- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - House budget writers voted Thursday to keep the state university system funded at current levels and raid $50 million from the renewable energy fund to avoid $68 million in cuts - and hundreds of layoffs - in the Department of Transportation.

House Republican leaders had said at the beginning of the session that the state’s spending plan for the two-year period beginning July 1 would not take money from any dedicated funds for other purposes. But budget writers said using the renewable energy funds was the best option to avoid the transportation cuts.

After attempts to increase the gas tax fell short, the House Finance Committee returned to the drawing board looking for another way to avoid the transportation cuts. Officials said the cuts would’ve cost nearly 700 jobs and turned maintenance of 2,500 miles of road over to local communities.

Thursday’s fix still cuts roughly $20 million from Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed transportation budget.

The full House will vote on the $11.2 billion state budget proposal next week before sending it to the Senate. The upper chamber is likely to change the spending plan substantially.

The House’s budget proposal shaves $28 million off what Hassan had proposed for the university system. It gives $76.5 million to the university system each year, which falls below the system’s $84 million in funding for 2015 but keeps the two-year total level. University officials said the increases in Hassan’s budget were not enough to freeze tuition, and system Chancellor Todd Leach said the House cuts will result in a greater tuition increase.

Democrats said the higher education changes will make it harder for the state to attract and keep young people to build a qualified workforce.

Most of the transportation cuts were avoided by taking $50 million out of the state’s renewable energy fund. Utilities pay into the fund if they do not use a certain amount of energy from sources like wind or solar. The money is then distributed in grants for renewable energy projects. The Finance Committee plan wipes out the money budgeted for the grants.

The committee also capped earlier cuts made to public school budgets. A proposal adopted last week cut stabilization grants, given to schools several years ago to protect them from funding formula changes, by 60 percent. That would have resulted in massive losses in state aid for large school districts in 2017. Nashua, for example, would have lost about $2 million while Manchester would have lost about $4 million. The committee voted Thursday to cap the losses at $750,000.

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