There are usually two or three breakfasts or lunches sponsored by interest groups for legislators each week. I went to Tuesday's breakfast hosted by The New Hampshire HEAL Action Program. HEAL stands for Healthy Eating Active Living with a goal of helping New Hampshire residents improve their health and quality of life through healthy eating and active living.
By letting our waistbands expand and with sedentary lifestyles, many adults and especially children will face lifetimes of poor health caused by obesity.
Obesity is only one measure of community health but it has increased in New Hampshire residents by 50% over the past 11 years. We know that children who are overweight have an increased risk for a number of chronic medical problems such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease and some forms of cancer. And poor health in a community drives up the cost of health insurance for everyone.
The HEAL program attempts to raise awareness of the impact of a healthy lifestyle and the opportunity we have through schools and communities to encourage residents to improve their own health with the decisions on food and physical made each day.
While attendees at the HEAL breakfast picked up some information on public health issues, there was a different learning experience that night in Alstead. The selectmen hosted their annual "Conversation with Our Representatives" bringing together county commissioners and legislators who represent Alstead in Concord.
These meetings are always helpful as citizens are pretty clear about their concerns which this year like other years revolved around taxes ... county and state. It also gives elected officials a chance to explain their views on key issues such as the state budget.
I think residents of every community would benefit if we had more of these open conversations on the major issues facing us today. Not only do legislators and others get a sense of what is on the minds of citizens, you also get a sense of the intensity of citizen feelings. Clearly, property taxes are of serious concern, with very intense feelings about them. It was a good learning experience.
Gradually, final drafts of bills are coming out of the Office Legislative Services to be distributed to appropriate committees for public hearings. Committee hearings will begin in earnest this week but the last couple of weeks have been used for briefings by outside experts and department heads. This is part of legislators' education, too.
On Thursday, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means and Executive Departments and Administration Committees met jointly to hear from the Commissioner of Administrative Services, Linda Hodgdon, on the status of the state's new financial data processing system and some important workforce issues facing the state.
The data processing system, called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), will replace our current (and very inadequate) budget and general ledger systems that were put in place in 1985. The system being replaced is inadequate to meet the needs of state government as you cannot easily track whether or not money being spent is federal grant money or state general fund money.
With the large amount of federal funds that flow into the state, improved tracking of these dollars is just one of the problems with the current system. And the state's auditors have criticized the current system's financial controls, the archaic nature of the processes involved some feel could threaten our bond rating, and it is paper- intensive. Having missed a couple of past "go live" dates, the Commissioner said the new $20 million plus system "must" meet its final "go live" date of July 1 when we begin the next biennium.
Commissioner Hodgdon also brought committee members up-to-date on some big cost increases. The state's payroll at current levels is about $1.2 billion for the upcoming biennium. Add to that the benefit costs for current employees and health care expenses for retirees as well as the 35% share paid by the state for current locally employed teachers, police and firefighters. The cost increase for these items will be $93.5 million of which the state will be responsible for $52.6 million, or $26.3 million on average in each of the next two fiscal years.
That is how the cost of government goes up. If you are to hold spending steady, it means $26.3 in reduced spending will have to be found in other areas. Longer term, the benefits package for employees and retirees may simply be too expensive.
Being a legislator is much like being a student. Changes in public policy come most appropriately when legislators have good information often gained over a period of time. Each legislator, through their committee assignments or personal interest, may have some expertise in a particular subject area. But it is the ongoing information on a wide range of topics that gives us all a base level of knowledge. Whether it is a constituent's email or a town hall meeting, a sponsored event or a legislative briefing, it all helps.
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