Capital Comments: State Budget Watchers Still Nervous

By State Senator Bob Odell

The Senate’s weekly calendar is available on line on Thursday night and delivered to Senate offices in print form each Friday morning.  Printed on bright yellow paper, the weekly calendar lists the bills coming up in the next Senate session, committee schedules for the upcoming week and what bills each will be addressing, and other meeting and event notices.  The House, too, has a weekly calendar differentiated by a blue cover from our yellow calendar.

In just a few pages, the calendar becomes a basic tool for Senators and staff, lobbyists and journalists.  It is the basic document to tell you where you need to be each day of the week.

There is also a lot of detail in the calendar.  Last week, we had the shortest session in my memory.  It lasted about an hour.  The brevity of the session was predictable.  There were only eleven bills listed for floor action.  And the calendar indicated that committee votes on recommendations on each bill were all unanimous.  That is one of those details that if there are no negative votes in committee it is unlikely there will be opposition on the floor.

*   *   *

An example was Senate Bill 346, which I sponsored and Representative Rodeschin (Newport) co-sponsored, that will increase sheriffs’ fees for services provided.  Usually, these are charges to attorneys for the delivery of documents and notices dealing with civil court matters.

The fees have not been raised in years and we all know any shortfall in operations of sheriffs’ departments fall on the property tax payer.  Sullivan County Sheriff Mike Prozzo requested the bill on behalf of all ten county sheriffs.

The bill moved rapidly through the Senate legislative process.  It was formally introduced on January 6 at our first session of 2010.  A public hearing was held on January 12. I introduced the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sheriffs Prozzo and Dutile (Grafton County) testified in favor of the bill.  No one opposed the bill.

On January 27, the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously “ought to pass” and the bill came to the floor of the Senate last week.  The chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Reynolds (Plymouth), offered a brief background statement on the purposes of the bill and with a quick unanimous voice vote the bill had passed the Senate.

When a bill has no opposition, things can move quickly.  Most of the bills that the Senate has dealt with in the first six weeks of the session have been simple and rarely had any opposition.  The next six weeks will be different, with tax bills including the “LLC” tax repeal proposal, education funding and many other controversial issues coming up.  Session days will be longer, the debates lengthy and heated and the pulling and tugging of the legislative process will be very visible.

*   *   *

The state budget remains the number one subject for legislators.  January receipts were under the monthly goal by $12.7 million or 10.5 percent.  That brings the revenue shortfall for the first seven months of the current fiscal year to $40.6 million from a budget plan for just over $1 billion of income.  While we are off by just 4 percent, it still has budget watchers nervous.  If you take the 4 percent shortfall and use that as the shortfall percentage for the year, the state would be shy of planned revenue by over $90 million.

Nick Toumpas is Commissioner of Health and Human Services (HHS).  He had the task on Friday to inform the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee of the $28 million in cuts he is implementing.  He is dealing with a dramatic increase in caseloads, the number of people who qualify and are seeking benefits.  That is up nearly 20,000 from what was expected when the budget was completed last June.  That caseload growth is clearly a reflection of the economy and especially the high level of unemployment.

And this is just the beginning.  With 30 percent of the state’s annual budget, HHS is where you have to look for reductions in spending.  You cannot cut items like debt payments, and while grants to cities, towns and school districts represent about 40 percent of annual state spending, there is not much appetite for cuts here which would likely cause property tax increases at the local level.

So, the focus has been on HHS.  Those who see services cut or ended or have co-pays for medical services increased are not going to like spending cuts.  And many times, when the state reduces a dollar of spending from our general fund, we also lose one dollar or more in federal matching money under the Medicaid program.

*   *   *

It was bound to happen at some point.  At the recent forum held in Sunapee on our state parks and pending legislation affecting the parks system, there was a question about whether the state had an annual pass available for purchase.  No one in the audience knew the answer.  Jen Shultis, a young woman from Peterborough involved with volunteer work on the Wapack Trail in southern New Hampshire, clicked on her Blackberry, found the Division of Parks and Recreation website, raised her hand and reported that we do have a season pass available.  It was the first time for me that someone had found the answer to a question in a public meeting by using a Blackberry.

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