Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., called for the state to increase higher education funding on Thursday in her new budget proposal, which could increase total spending in the next fiscal year by 10.2 percent. Hassan is relying on the passage of an expanded gambling bill to increase revenue.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives opposed previous gambling bills, and legislators have expressed resistance to the large role gambling revenue would play in the budget.
During her campaign, Hassan pledged to emphasize higher education, which she said is essential for a competitive workforce.
"Ever-rising tuition rates can force many families to avoid even considering New Hampshire's public colleges and universities, hurting our competitiveness," Hassan said in her budget address. "If we hope to encourage job creation and innovative economic growth, we cannot keep losing our young people or fail to develop our workforce."
Hassan's spending and revenue proposals for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years could restore funding to the state's university and community college system, which saw cuts in the current budget.
State funding for in-state students at public colleges and universities was decreased to $51 million in 2011 from $100 million. Universities weathered the storm by "tightening up" programs, State Rep. David Kidder, R-New London, said.
"In hindsight, the cuts may not have been such a bad thing, because it made the universities work hard in everything they do," Kidder said.
While the new budget proposal does not fully restore aid to public universities to pre-2011 levels, it aims to increase state aid for the state's university system to $75 million in fiscal year 2014 and $90 million in fiscal year 2015. It also allocates $40 million in fiscal year 2014 and $42.5 million in fiscal year 2015 to New Hampshire's community college system, surpassing previous years' funding.
State Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Merrimack, said he was pleased to see funding restored after it was cut during the last fiscal year.
"Education is a top priority, and any time you're cutting funding for education you're putting pressure on universities, which impacts tuition and New Hampshire students and families," Richardson said.
The presidents of all four state universities have pledged to use the funds proposed by Hassan to freeze in-state tuition for the next two fiscal years. They also hope to increase both need-based and merit-based aid for students who are New Hampshire residents.
The University of New Hampshire is responsible for producing roughly one-quarter of New Hampshire's skilled workforce, according to a 2012 study released by the school.
Increased aid to community colleges, surpassing previous levels, will allow for their expansion, which Kidder considers vital to New Hampshire's economy.
"It is my feeling that students of the community colleges stay in New Hampshire and get jobs here, so it is important to invest in them because they will contribute later on," Kidder said.
The spending increases are predicated on a one-time, roughly $80 million license fee for one New Hampshire high-end casino.
"To rely on gambling in the budget is setting us up for failure because it's highly unlikely that we will be passing it," House minority leader Gene Chandler, R-Carroll, said.
If the gambling bill does not pass, Kidder sees no other way to make up for the loss in revenue necessary to support state universities.
"This is a very political ploy where she has backed legislators into supporting the gambling issue if they want the money back in the budget to do some of the other things that really need attention," Kidder said. "I will vote against it no matter what."
State Rep. Chip Rice, D-Merrimack, applauds Hassan's budget focus on higher education, but opposes the gambling legislation and thinks too many programs put forth in her budget rely heavily on its passage.
"It would not surprise me if we voted against gambling again, and that would mean that $80 million of programs in the budget would not get funding," Rice said. "I think that it puts the finance committee in a very tough position."
Lawmakers have until June 30 to compromise on a new spending plan before the next fiscal year begins.