Only two years ago in the gubernatorial election, Republican nominee John Stephen promised that if elected he would actively wield his veto pen. He suggested Governor John Lynch was a laggard infrequently vetoing bills.
Governor Lynch last week made up for any past failure to veto bills. It seemed that every time I checked my email there were one or two announcements of new vetoes. In the end, he vetoed eight Senate bills and five House bills. No Governor has vetoed that many bills in my time in the legislature.
The upcoming veto session should move quickly in the Senate. I think, with a couple of exceptions, every Senator has voted at least a couple of times on each of the bills. But, there is always a chance for a surprise.
As the first vetoes were being announced last Monday, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee was meeting. The Fiscal Committee, made up of five House and five Senate members, meets monthly to approve transfers between departments or budget lines in departments. Representatives Randy Foose (New London) and Beverly Rodeschin (Newport) and I serve on the Fiscal Committee.
The most important issue at last Mondays meeting was funding New Hampshires share of the Northern New England Poison Center. The Poison Center handles about 12,000 calls annually through a 24-hour hotline emergency service.
Individuals calling from their homes help avoid unnecessary costly hospital emergency room visits. Hospitals and other health care providers also count on the hotline to provide toxicology experts who specialize in poison management. This service is very efficient and saves money for hospitals, physicians, nursing homes, home health care providers, dentists, mental health providers, as well as school and summer camp nurses. In fact, it is estimated that for every dollar spent for the poison center services, $7 is saved.
Without the services provided by the Poison Center, there would be more deaths and injuries due to poisoning and increased costs for ambulances, hospital emergency room services, and treatment.
No one wants the Poison Center services to disappear for New Hampshire residents. But federal officials have been warning New Hampshire for a long time that the state was using a federal grant inappropriately to fund the states share of the Poison Center costs. Recently, the federal government said the funding would end on June 30. Without another source of money for the states funding, the Poison Center would no longer be able to accept calls from New Hampshire.
The solution, for one year beginning on July 1, is to take $350,000 from the Emergency 911 System Fund and $150,000 from the Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services fund to pay for New Hampshires participation in the Poison Center. The money will be transferred from these two funds which are based within the Department of Safety to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS will see that the Poison Center is paid. By this time next year, budget writers will have to find state funds or other money to pay the states annual costs for the poison hotline.
There are some lessons to be learned here. First, when the federal government says you are using grant money inappropriately, to stop it or they will end the funding, we should listen. Secondly, future reduced federal spending is going to mean that programs previously funded by the federal government are going to end.
And lastly, the period between election day this fall and the end of December will see the Congress making some major budget decisions most importantly, how to cut the federal deficit. While observers are blaming some of the lag in the economic recovery to reductions in employment in local and state governments, how can there not be more cuts as federal spending through state and local governments is reduced.
Whatever the Congress does or does not do this fall after the election will have a major impact on the state's next budget.
Another Fiscal Committee agenda item highlighted the same point. Over the last few months, the number of green colored coded pages in each committee members book of items to be dealt with has declined. Green pages indicate the item is related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which we know as federal stimulus money.
Only one ARRA item was on the agenda last week. As approved, it extended the life of the Cold Case Unit from February 28 to a new end date of June 30, 2013. There is no change in the amount of money in the program; simply an extension of the time period in which the money may be spent.
An important part of the grant adjustment form said "Recovery Act grant awards may not be extended beyond 6/30/13." No more extensions, no more changes; the stimulus money for the Cold Case Unit will end next June.
There is general support for the work of the Cold Case Unit as it has brought several people to court to face charges for crimes committed years ago. That brings some justice to the system of finding these alleged criminals as well as giving some solace to victims and their families.
As valued as this program is, with federal funding going away next year, will budget writers next spring find state money to keep the Cold Case Unit going?