Capital Comments: Court Consolidation, State Revenues and Layoffs

By State Senator Bob Odell

The court consolidation study committee will be in Claremont on Wednesday, October 28.

Officially, the Committee to Evaluate the Physical Consolidation of the Claremont and Newport District Courts and Family Division Sites and the Closing of the Colebrook and Milford District Courts had its first on-site meeting in Colebrook on Tuesday, October 13.

The Committee has five members but only the chair, Representative Leishman (Peterborough) and I were able to be there.  That is understandable given it was a 300 mile trip on a snowy night from Concord to Colebrook and back to Lempster

Local officials provided a tour of the Colebrook Court which is located within the town hall.  And while the physical arrangement may not be perfect, the courtroom and shared offices seem to work when the district court and family division each meet once a week.

The issues in Colebrook are pretty clear.  If it is closed, court business would be transferred to the Lancaster Court about 40 miles away.  From the Pittsburg-Canada border, the trip to the Lancaster Court would be about 75 miles.  The savings for the state by closing the Claremont Court would be $13,000 annually.  That is the amount the state pays the town for rent including electricity, heat and janitorial services.

After the tour, Representative Leishman and I went to the Colebrook Elementary School to meet about 75 concerned leaders and citizens.  Area police chiefs, court officers and town officials, selectmen, businessmen and women, school superintendent, special education coordinator, an advocate for victims of sexual and domestic violence and others spoke of the difficulties to be borne b by citizens if the Colebrook Court is closed.

The issues in Claremont and Milford are somewhat different.  That is why the October 28 tour and meeting of the Claremont Court will be important for those who want to convey their ideas to committee members.  The tour will begin at 6:00 p.m. and the public meeting at 7:00 p.m. in Claremont City Council Chambers.

*   *   *

State revenues continue to lag behind budget projections and are lower than the same period in the prior year.

The current fiscal year began on July 1.  In the first three months, unrestricted revenue for the general and education funds totaled $381 million.  That is $26 million below the budget plan or less than 7 percent off.  Revenue for the quarter was also $4.4 million lower than the same period last year.

You never want revenue to come in under budget but the fact we are off by less than 7 percent is much better than the 10 percent to 15 percent we were off for most of the last fiscal year.  It was about this time last year that the national and regional economies were tanking and with it state revenue streams.  Hopefully, with the economy improving, revenue will catch up to put the state budget in balance.

Our largest source of revenue is the combined business profits and business enterprise taxes.  One has to be careful in making judgments on business taxes for any particular period as there are estimated payments that come in along with final returns.  But, for the first quarter, business taxes provided $103 million, $4 million under the budget plan.

Another business related tax, the meals and rooms tax, was off $6.7 million against goal of $76.9 million.  A measure of the economy is the interest and dividends tax which was off $5.6 million or down 25 percent from the budget plan.  Companies have cut dividends and interest rates at local banks may be the lowest in my lifetime.  The economy has a direct impact on revenue for the state and while income is off less against budget plan than in the last fiscal year, it has still been a long time since we had positive month with revenue higher than the budget plan.

There was some positive news.  Tobacco tax revenue was almost on target for the quarter, liquor revenue was up $1 million over plan and the new gambling winnings tax produced $400,000 in the quarter, a 100% gain over the estimate of $200,000.  There you have it.  Smoking, drinking and gambling are meeting budget estimates.

*   *   *

I sensed real disappointment around the State House when the results of the voting by members of the employees’ union on a new contract were released.  By turning down the contract that had negotiated, around 250 state employees faced immediate layoffs.  And many current vacancies and future vacant positions will not be filled.

Many felt the idea of using furloughs, agreed upon employee days off without pay, would have spread the economic pain over everyone while keeping current employees on the job.  And the union members would have had a contract in hand.  Now negotiations must be restarted without anyone knowing what the final outcome will be.

*   *   *

There is only one day, Wednesday, October 28, when the legislature will meet between last June when we recessed and January when the next annual session begins.  Informally know as a “veto day” or “veto session,” it will take a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override the four vetoes by Governor Lynch.  A hotly contested bill deals with the medical use of marijuana.  The other three are quite technical.  One would increase the powers of marital masters, another would extend senior active status to judges over 70 and one deals with the time allowed each year for consumers to buy prepaid contracts for heating oil.

NH State Senator Bob Odell (District 8) is chairman of Ways and Means, a member of the Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee, and the Finance Committee. Senate District 8 comprises: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.

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