Down in Concord

“Politicians and diapers have one thing in common: they should both be changed regularly… and for the same reason.” — unknown

Last week the House finished all of its bills except for the three big budget bills. Two bills, HB 135 and HB 617, received lengthy debate as expected.

By a narrow margin of 189-184, the House passed HB 135, restricting the right to defend self, family, and community against deadly force. Sullivan County Republicans Grenier, Rollins, and Smith voted to protect your rights; Democrats Cloutier, Gagnon, Gottling, Irwin, Lefebvre, O’Hearn, Schmidt, and Sweeney voted to restrict your rights.

HB 617, increasing the gas tax by 67% – the largest tax increase in state history – was passed on a mostly party-line vote. Both sides agreed that we should spend more money on roads and bridges. Republicans argued that the Highway Fund has more than enough money if we would simply spend it on actual highways rather than diverting one-third of it to agencies that have nothing to do with constructing and maintaining our highways. Every Sullivan County Democrat voted for the tax increase. Republicans Rollins and Smith voted against the tax increase.

The House has finished all but three of its bills. Those three are the big budget bills, HB 1 and HB 2, which deal with the operating budget, and HB 25, which does the capital budget. When I say “big” I mean both literally and figuratively – HB 1 is about 800 pages long. Total appropriations are more than $11 billion, or 10.2% higher than the current budget.

The operating budget is divided into two parts. HB 1 is a giant spreadsheet. (As of this writing it is available only as a PDF file. Later it will be downloadable as an Excel file.) If you suffer from insomnia, trying to read all of those numbers should put you to sleep. By contrast, HB 2 is lots of words. It has changes to the law to allow money to be spent the way HB 1 says.

Current law may say one thing about how money is to be spent, but if the budget writers want to spend it differently, they just add a section to HB 2 to make it legal for them to break the law. A typical example is Sec. 2, which states “Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, … revenue sharing with cities and towns shall be suspended for the biennium”. The word “suspend” appears 23 times in HB 2; “notwithstanding” appears 44 times.

When debating HB 617, the massive gas tax increase, Democrats promised that all the new money would go to roads and bridges. The proposed HB 2 budget bill illustrates how easily the budget writers can break a promise. They just add a short paragraph saying that a section of law is suspended for the biennium.

Interestingly, the proposed budget does not spend any more money on roads and bridges. In fact, it spends LESS. The  department of Transportation (DOT) portion of the Highway Fund is reduced from $222 million in the current budget down to $192 million in the proposed budget. Total DOT spending from all funds is down from $567 million this year to less than $551 million next year. Yes, that’s right. After telling us how important it is to spend more money on roads and bridges, they propose to spend less money in their new budget. Tell me again why taxpayers have to cough up MORE money for the new gas tax, when the Democrats plan to spend LESS money. More and more it appears that they want the new gas tax not to improve our highway infrastructure, but to pay for all sorts of other programs.

There is (at least) one other way the budget writers break past promises. They grab money that was promised to be used for a specific purpose. Within state government there are hundreds of programs that collect fees to pay for particular activities. These moneys are supposedly dedicated to a particular purpose separate from all other general government activities. One prominent example is the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP). A $25 fee on mortgage transactions is intended to fund land and historic conservation. For five years, when money was tight, that money was moved out of the dedicated fund to the general fund to balance the budget.

Two years ago, the budget writers had the decency to transparently specify in the budget that they were taking money from LCHIP for the general fund. This year the budgeteers don’t say what dedicated funds they will raid. They delegate to the governor authority to choose which funds to raid to come up with $22 million to “balance” the budget.

The new budget was passed by the House Finance Committee just two days ago. It has been visible to the public for not much more than one day. As people have more time to scrutinize, no doubt we will learn even more troubling details.

The Finance Committee will hold a public briefing on the two big budget bills. I don’t want to suggest that their budget is a joke but the briefing is on April Fools’ Day.

On April 3rd, the full House will vote on these three budget bills, then during the next two months the Senate will amend – perhaps extensively – the House budget.

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