Wednesday, May 31, 2017
In order to move New Hampshire forward, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. From the senior scraping to get by and stay in her home, to the folks waiting for weeks at Concord Hospital for mental health treatment, to the worker struggling with addition on the West Side of Manchester, everyone deserves a voice and everyone counts.
One of us is a former teacher and coach, the other a former legal aid attorney. One of us is the longest serving member of the state Senate, the other the youngest senator since 1988. One of us lives in Manchester, the other in Concord. While we come from different backgrounds and different districts, we share the fundamental belief that we must build a budget that works for all the people, not just the special interest elite.
Although we greatly appreciate the respectful, courteous and fair Senate budget process, we strongly disagree with the final, overall result. Unfortunately, on substance, our Republican friends in the Senate majority took the budget on a hard right turn, one that even former House speaker Bill O’Brien has praised. With massive tax cuts for business owners and big corporations, and a failure to meet critical needs, this isn’t a budget we could support in committee.
From time to time, we get a lecture from our conservative friends that budgets are about “needs,” not “wants.” That is certainly something we agree on. Here’s a blunt assessment of the critical needs left unmet by the Senate Republican budget:
First, the budget fails to fund the prevention programming at DCYF that is necessary to prevent the mistreatment of our vulnerable children. That’s not our conclusion – prevention programming is a core recommendation of an independent audit of DCYF, with a report released in December. While some reforms are made and more assessment workers are funded, the budget does not fund the social workers and prevention programs necessary to stop the mistreatment of our children. What happens after a case assessment, if the case doesn’t go to court? In this budget: Nothing more. But there is nothing more important than protecting the safety and security of our children, and preventing the mistreatment of vulnerable children is a critical “need,” not a “want.”
Second, the budget fails to meaningfully ramp up our efforts to deal with our opioid epidemic. Our bipartisan efforts to combat our opioid epidemic have begun to fray, with Republican budget-writers – for the first time ever – diverting dedicated funding away from prevention, treatment and recovery. Some are claiming a “doubling” of support, but that’s not what is happening. They are diverting much of it to fund some of the day-to-day operations of Health and Human Services. That is the definition of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and playing a shell game with critical funding. Ramping up our prevention, treatment and recovery capacity in this opioid epidemic is a “need,” not a “want.”
Third, the budget fails to fully fund services for adult Granite Staters with developmental disabilities, services that allow the opportunity for inclusive life in our communities, rather than in an institution. While there is more support for developmental disabilities in this budget, the reality is hundreds of Granite Staters with disabilities are either eligible for support soon, or need more support – that’s just the demographics. Instead of dealing with this, the budget asks a small subgroup of legislators to potentially approve only about half of this additional need. We ought to budget for this, not kick the can down the road with some half-measure. Ensuring persons with disabilities get critical services is a clear “need,” not a “want.”
Fourth, the budget fails to adequately deal with our mental health crisis. Each day, we have people literally sitting in emergency rooms and hospital hallways waiting for needed mental health treatment. That’s just not right. While there are some measures in this budget, the budget fails to adequately staff and process emergency mental health triage, our major short-term need. It also fails to do anything addressing childhood mental health for a year, fails to provide the support to attract and retain the mental health workers necessary to do the job (the last rate increase for mental health workers was in 2006). It also takes away additional support for adult assertive community treatment, something we are falling short on our legal obligations, at least according to a Jan. 6 independent court monitor report. In our view, adequately dealing with our mental health crisis is a “need,” not a “want.”
Fifth, there is nothing more important than a job, and this budget fails to do anything on job training. We have a major skills gap in New Hampshire. There are close to 20,000 job openings in any given month, from health care to high tech to financial services to the trades. We need to recruit, retrain and retain a skilled workforce, including folks on a second career and graduating Granite State seniors. Over and over again in committee, our Republican friends voted down job training. Skilling up our workforce is the No. 1 concern we hear from both workers and businesses, so we firmly believe this is an unmet “need,” not a “want.”
Sixth, the budget imposes more cost-shifting onto the backs of seniors. Under this budget, thousands of retired state workers will either see increased or entirely new monthly health insurance premiums. This breaks a promise we made and it functions like a tax on our retired state workers, many of whom have dedicated decades of service to our state. In our view, fulfilling this promise is a “need,” not a “want.”
Seventh, the budget fails to support our local communities, with either increased retirement or education support, which are the two main drivers of local property taxes. In fact, the Senate Republican budget removes support for full-day kindergarten (something 83 percent of Granite Staters support), and it also allows education stabilization payments to go away, something that really hits low- to middle-income communities. We think investing in education and in our communities is a “need,” not a “want.”
Cutting even more taxes for business owners and big corporations? In our view, that’s clearly a “want.” And, it’s a “want” we simply cannot afford. But, that’s what our friends in the Republican majority “want,” and so that’s what they put in their budget. New Hampshire has the seventh lowest overall business taxes in the country, according to the right-of-center Tax Foundation. Despite cutting a number of business taxes the last few years, our Republican friends packed even more cuts in this budget, to the tune of over $20 million in cuts now and upwards of $100 million in cuts the next budget. We believe if anyone should get a tax break it should finally be working families and local property tax payers, not the special interest elite at the top.
In the end, our Senate Republican friends in the majority really had two choices: 1.) Meet in the middle on a bipartisan budget; or 2.) Go hard right with arbitrarily limited spending as well as massive tax cuts for those at the top, in order to appeal to the self-described “Freedom Caucus.” Unfortunately, the latter approach was taken, and the result is predictable. Under this plan, your property taxes will continue to go up, while taxes for big corporations will go down – big time. Under this plan, income inequality will grow, not shrink. Under this plan, litigation for failing to take care of our vulnerable will likely increase, not decrease.
We simply cannot afford this Republican budget. We cannot afford this budget because the math doesn’t work. We cannot afford this budget because it is not fiscally responsible. But, most of all, we cannot afford this budget because we cannot afford to leave anyone behind.
(Lou D’Allesandro is state senator for Goffstown and Wards 3, 4, 10 and 11 of Manchester. Dan Feltes is state senator for Concord, Henniker, Hopkinton, Penacook and Warner. Sens. D’Allesandro and Feltes are the two minority Democratic members of the six-member Senate Finance committee.)