Senator Odell is Chairman of
the Ways and
Means Committee, and
member of the Energy, Environment and Economic Development
Committee; Finance Committee; Citizens Trade Policy
Commission; State Park System Advisory Council; and Comprehensive Cancer Plan Oversight
District 8 towns: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont,
Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury,
Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity,
Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.
Nearly every one of the 400 seats in Representatives' Hall in the State House was filled while dozens of other citizens stood against the walls. That was on Wednesday night when citizens were invited to plead their cases on the budget to the Senate Finance Committee.
The House chamber has been serving democracy in New Hampshire since 1819 and once again it was the room for citizens to come forward and tell their stories about the impact the budget will have on their lives. There were state employees, retirees, parents of children with disabilities and others who spoke on a wide range of issues over the five and a half hours of the public hearing.
The issue at hand is the $11.5 billion budget for the next two years beginning on July 1. We are now in the 4th step of a 6 step process with the budget. Last year, department heads put together their proposals for the Governor, his office then worked on his budget that was presented to the legislature on February 12, the House Finance Committee came up with their version of the budget and then the House passed the budget on April 8-9. Now, as they say, the Senate has "possession" of the budget. That triggered the public hearings on the budget held in Laconia, Manchester and Concord last week.
Public hearings bring out those who represent stakeholder groups as well as those who simply come to speak for themselves. Some presentations are very professional, often from lobbyists or managers of not-for-profits who rely on state money to fund their operations. Other presentations from individuals unused to public speaking are sometimes a big ragged but ring with truth and sincerity because of the power of their story. And, of course, emphasis is on how state spending will affect them. The state's budget after all is about people not just about numbers. The seven member Finance Committee is searching for fairness about how money will be raised and who will benefit from state spending.
The backdrop of the Senate budgeting process is a perception, with some strong factual underpinnings, that the House did not do a very good job on the budget. It is far from complete with much left to the Senate to sort out.
The first speaker at the Wednesday public hearing represented New Hampshire horsemen. He was there to explain that the budget from the House allows dog tracks to conduct simulcast wagering even if they decide not to run dog races. Currently, tracks must have a set number of racing days each year to be able to have simulcast betting. The horsemen want to make sure Rockingham Park keeps running horse races. That is an example of a very specific request from a stakeholder group.
Next up was the lobbyist for the truckers. He explained the dire circumstances that would be created if the final budget included the 15 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax. Pointing out New Hampshire's increased unemployment levels, the slowdown in the trucking business and the difficulty of passing new costs on to customers, he pleaded that the Senate support a $10 increase in the annual automobile registration fee that was in the Governor's budget instead of the House's gas tax increase.
And so it went for the next five hours. Issues that the Senate faces of long term importance to the state include the closure of the Laconia Correctional Center and reduction in staff at the state prisons, new charges to state retirees for a portion of their health care costs, funding for the New Hampshire Cancer Plan, provider payments to hospitals, money for mass transit and revenue sharing with towns and cities.
There were a couple of important points. The anguishing stories from parents of disabled young people about to become 21 hit home. The children are taken care of through the educational system but when they become 21 that responsibility shifts to the state if the money is there. That is a big if. Some budgets have had enough money to eliminate the disability wait list and others have not. If money is not there when a disabled child turns 21 he or she becomes the responsibility of the parents. To care for the child, a parent may have to give up their job and adjust their entire lives. One woman reported on her son who is cared for in a out of district facility now but when he becomes 21 she will have to take him into her home if there is a disabilities wait list. She said, "What do I tell my neighbors?" as she sees her son as a threat to children and others and she has neither the physical strength nor resources to manage him.
Another budget consideration is the intertwining of state programs with federal matching grants. Over and over again, the leveraging of state funds to qualify for federal funds comes up with many diverse issues. Senior Companions, for example, recruits seniors who provide services at about 76 cents an hour. A $64,000 state expenditure for this program triggers $1.8 million in federal money.
The Senate Finance Committee begins this morning to hear from department heads working from spreadsheet upon spreadsheet. Thankfully, after public hearings last week, the faces and stories of real people and programs impacted by the budget will not be lost on committee members.
New Hampshire State House
107 North Main Street
Concord, NH 03301-4951