- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire budget negotiators agreed to an $11.7 billion two-year spending plan on Wednesday, though getting it through the House likely will be a challenge.

The committee of conference started last week with an $11.8 billion budget passed by the Senate and an $11.9 billion plan that was backed by House leadership but was defeated by a small group of conservative Republicans and Democrats.

Members of the conference committee plan to sign the compromise bills - the spending plan and a companion bill making necessary policy changes - on Thursday and send them back to the full House and Senate for a vote.

Republican negotiators said the deal addresses critical problems such as mental health care and the opioid drug crisis, while Democrats complained that it cuts taxes for businesses while leaving too many others in need.

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, noted the bipartisan support for significantly increasing the number of psychiatric treatment beds and services at a time when many seeking help end up waiting for days in emergency rooms. The plan also increases funding for alcohol and drug abuse prevention, treatment and recovery, though how such money will be spent remains contentious.

“Our disagreements are over process, not over whether we want to solve problems,” he said.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat, said she would neither sign the committee report nor vote for the budget because it prioritizes business tax cuts over services for people with developmental disabilities or increased funding for the state university system.

“We made the decision early on to flat-fund the University of New Hampshire but we’re always hearing from all of our employers that we need a workforce,” she said. “We need a workforce more than we need tax reductions.”

She also objected to provisions prohibiting the state from giving money to health care facilities to provide abortions and requiring that contracts for family planning services be competitively bid.

“These are really an affront to women’s health issues, and I don’t feel they have any place in the budget,” she said.

But House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, said focusing on the abortion language overlooks all the good the budget includes. In more than three decades of working on budgets, he said he’s never agreed with a plan 100 percent, and this one is no exception. But he defended the tax cuts, saying for too long the state failed to focus on job creation or business growth.

“We made some very difficult decisions. While it’s easy to say ‘What are you doing? There are needs out there and you’re cutting taxes,’ that’s part of the balance,” he said. “I think this is a very, very good budget for the state of New Hampshire.”

Another longtime legislator, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, decried the decision to remove funding for foster grandparents and congregate housing for seniors. He said his career has been about giving back to his community and helping those who don’t have a voice, but this budget doesn’t do that.

“They don’t want a handout, they want a hand up. We are denying them that,” he said.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the plan June 22. In April, members of the New Hampshire House Freedom Caucus helped defeat the budget after arguing it spent too much money. One of its members, Rep. Jim McConnell, R-Swanzey, said Wednesday nothing in the latest version changes his mind.

“I think we still have the votes to kill the budget,” he said. “I realize nobody in leadership seems to think so, but I don’t know where they’re going to get the votes.”

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