Thoughts on the New Hampshire budget
My guess is that the New Hampshire voter needs to have some specificity about the craziness that's going on in Concord in order to better understand it. The party line vote against the many amendments proposed by the Democrats in order to keep necessary state services, to help those in need, and to protect rights for workers included one to maintain the public investment in high-tech innovative companies, and another to attempt to save collective bargaining for public employees.
We think the large infusion of "Tea party" and "Freestate" Republicans last fall has adversely affected the historically more responsible Republican Party in New Hampshire. Notice, that reference is made to former Republican dominated government, which both supported and encouraged the right to organize, and the government as an important investor in the New Hampshire economy.
One amendment would have restored roughly $380,000 of the usual $500,000 annual contribution provided by the state of New Hampshire to the Innovative Research Center that is housed at UNH.
This effort to provide seed money to small businesses began in 1991, during another, but smaller recession, and was encouraged by Republican Gov. Gregg and at that time and proposed by a dedicated Republican legislator, Ed Dupont, and passed and funded by the Republican majority party of the New Hampshire House and Senate. They recognized the importance of public investment to provide jobs during economic downturns. But, no longer.
The IRC provides seed money to innovative high-tech companies. It is a small amount but it is crucial for new startups to jump to the next stage, where large investments may come in from the outside. In the last 21 years the small state investment of roughly $6 million has led to between 30 and $40 million of private investment. The fruits of the grants were new products, improved processes, and improved products -- but most importantly, added over 600 new good jobs in the high-tech sector. There were 177 grants given through the IRC to encourage innovative small business in New Hampshire; 175 of those included partnerships with New Hampshire higher education institutions.
Removing this small investment by the state of New Hampshire will also have the immediate effect of jeopardizing a $20-$25 million grant that would be shared by the USNH, Dartmouth, science centers throughout the state, and high school teachers and students from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR). This program attempts to diversify the connections between science, higher education, and industry in areas away from centers like MIT and the Silicon Valley. The state's investment was going to provide the matching money required for application for the grant. Other losses, because of the removal of this small amount of state investment, will be to discourage innovative startup companies from coming to New Hampshire. And, it will clearly increase the brain drain when technical graduates of New Hampshire's institutions of higher education leave New Hampshire to find high-tech jobs where they are available.
There is a larger issue here as well. New Hampshire is in relatively good shape compared to the rest of the country in terms of the health of our economy, and our frugal government services financed by nearly the lowest tax burden in the country (more than 20% below other New England states). The choices being made by the majority party to slash programs that serve those in need, in order to save smokers a dime per pack or lower the tax for rooms and meals demonstrates volumes about the antigovernment/and anti-worker priorities of the Republican Party. The gloom and doom of the budget cutters at this time of apparent increase in the slow growth recovery from the great recession may also serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy in drying up whatever optimism there is about New Hampshire's economic future.
Another Democratic party amendment would have stopped the destruction of unions proposed by the finance committee in removing impasse procedures in RSA 273a, Public Employee Collective Bargaining. Aside from the recent infection that may have spread from Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, and the anti-union animus from outside groups who advocate New Hampshire becoming a right to work (for less) state, consistent Republican majorities have supported public employee collective bargaining since it began in 1975.
I do not believe there are any knowledgeable observers who blame public employee unions for our great recession and the attendant decline in state revenues, but it appears the Republican majority elected last November does.
This amazing policy change did not include a public hearing , nor was it debated by a House policy committee. Those who offered this change seem to have little direct experience with affected citizens about the implications of unionized employees becoming "at will", should their contracts expire during an impasse. Current law provides for stage I, mediation; and stage II, nonbinding fact-finding, to try to get beyond an impasse stalemate.
Public employee collective bargaining has been in the law for 36 years, when Gov. Meldrum Thompson (R) and the New Hampshire legislature, with a solid Republican majority, understood the importance of enabling teachers and public employees collective bargaining rights in order to keep labor peace.
The majority of the finance committee claimed that this action would give an "edge" to the state negotiators. It would lead to a "level playing field" in upcoming negotiations with state employees. We were told of the need to save $50 million, and clearly, with the union-destroying decision of the Republican dominated finance committee, that $50 million would come from state employee salaries and benefits. The way they will do this is not through negotiations, but rather by declaring an impasse prior to the time of the expiration of the existing contract. At expiration, all unionized state employees will become "at will" employees. That means they lose all of their contract rights, and the state can impose whatever salary and benefit package they are willing to give -- or take away.
Is there an uneven playing field in public employee collective bargaining in New Hampshire? Had this been considered by a policy committee of the legislature, they would have heard that of the 119 teachers' contracts being negotiated this year, so far, 96 have been settled at the table. That's 83%, and is evidence that both sides were willing to give and take in a collective bargaining process conducted by citizens at the local level who understood the hard economic times.
The finance committee has proposed cuts in state support for the University System of 45% -perhaps $80 million over two years. The usual average of investment from states to public higher education across the country is over 35% of the higher education institutions' budgets -- in New Hampshire it is and has been below 12%- and will go down to about 7%.
As the finance committee is well aware, another group of public employees' salaries and benefits are the largest item in the USNH general budget -- and thus will be the largest target for cuts. Under the rules of RSA 273a, either side can declare an impasse at any time they believe there's no more give-and-take to be had at the negotiating table. That triggers a process by which mediation and fact-finding may resolve the outstanding issues. After impasse is declared it usually takes between three and six months to go through the fact-finding process. If an impasse is in effect at the time of the expiration of the contract under the 2011 House budget, the USNH may treat its workers as "at will" employees and impose a settlement. The UNH faculty union is at impasse with the trustees right now. Keene State College will begin negotiation on April 1, and the current contract expires on June 30, 2011.
The "edge" claimed by the finance committee will end collective bargaining rights for public employees. There are also indications that this threat to labor peace has angered and mobilized many tens of thousands of normally quiet New Hampshire citizens.
This embarrassment to the state of New Hampshire would not have happened had it gone to a policy committee, assuming a small bit of the common sense that has been displayed by former Republican governors and legislatures for the last 36 years.
The loss of $100s of millions of federal matching money, and the denial of rights and services to NH citizens is less related to the economic slowdown than to the anti government ideology of the Republican majority elected last fall. Elections matter-think 2012.
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