Every two years, the State budget is the major item that is worked on by the legislature. The legislature's work on the budget really is done in a pressure-packed four-month period of time, between mid-February and mid-June in the odd-numbered years. Right now, the budget is in the hands of the House Finance Committee, the first legislative group that gets to review the proposed budget and its trailer bill, both of which are initially proposed by the Governor as HB 1 and HB 2 (the trailer bill is the legislation that accompanies the budget and makes statutory changes that are necessitated by what happens in the budget). House Finance is divided into three "divisions," which are the subcommittees that handle the various aspects of the budget. This was the week when those divisions needed to make final decisions on the recommendations they will make to the full Finance Committee, so it was a week of much activity on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building.
Although HB 1 and HB 2 were the focus of the work being done this week, the House Finance Committee took the extraordinary step of taking the Department of Transportation part of the budget out of HB 1 and putting it into an entirely separate bill - HB 375. It was that bill which captured the lion's share of the attention over the last few days, and understandably so, because the plan that was approved by a majority of the committee made $88 million in cuts to the DOT budget and it would lead to the laying off of about 700 DOT employees - about half of the entire departmental workforce. As the Deputy DOT Commissioner told the Committee, if this bill becomes law then the legislature may as well change the name of the Department because it will no longer be a department of "transportation."
The passage of this bill by the full House, without anything else, would be an alarming development. It is encouraging that Rep. Neal Kurk, the Chair of the House Finance Committee, has come out publicly and said that the outcome produced by this bill is unacceptable. One of the ideas being suggested to address the issue is a hike in the gas tax. That seems likely to come up as a floor amendment when HB 375 comes before the full House next week. It seems indisputable that the hole needs to be filled somehow if the state is to avoid a collapse of its transportation infrastructure and/or a massive downshift of costs to local governments (with an accompanying massive increase in local property taxes).
The Chamber will be following this closely. Something must be done. It is not exactly a good way to attract businesses to New Hampshire if the best we can say about the massive potholes is that they will be covered by deep snow five months out of the year. But don't go buying your half-tracks just yet. There is a long way left to go here in the budget process.