Capital Comments: Proposed Budget Cuts Loom Over Judiciary

By State Senator Bob Odell

To see the Chief Justice of New Hampshire essentially begging the legislature not to further cut the budget of the Judicial Branch and suggesting that the Governor with his new proposed $4 million cut is leading to the closing of our court system was a shocker.

Add to that the interruption of the Chief Justice by the Chair of House Finance Committee telling him his comments were out-of-place and that the legislature was struggling mightily to solve our state budget problems and that no one was trying to close down the courts.

The Chief Justice responded directly with plenty of “with respect” and “respectfully” but did not back down.  He said the proposed cuts would do damage to the court system no one wanted.  And, he said the courts, unlike other state agencies are an obligation of the state required by our constitution and have been since 1784.

It was a historic moment.  To see the obvious conflicts between the Governor as the executive branch, the legislature and the judiciary was a stand-off  to remember.

As school children, we learned about our governments, federal and state, that there are three separate but equal branches of government.

The legislative and executive branches are often in a somewhat normal pulling and tugging process over public policy issues.  After all, the Governor and legislators must face the voters every two years.  The judges are appointed and serve until they reach retirement.

The drama played out during a Joint House and Senate Finance Hearing in the House’s Committee Room 2210-211 in the legislative office building.  Governor John Lynch has proposed reductions in spending, an increase in the cigarette tax and other financing plans to insure a balanced budget for the biennium.  To implement the Governor’s plan for the second year of the biennium, he needs the legislature to act

Committee members sat at a huge u-shaped table that could accommodate the two dozen committee members.  The audience of legislators, lobbyists and stakeholders estimated at 150-200 filled every chair, stood shoulder to should around the room and crowded the hallway outside the committee room.

Senator Sgambati introduced Senate Bill 450 which is the bill upon which the Governor’s plans will be amended.  Then, the Governor using a 20 page presentation made the case for his proposal.  He said we needed to “work together” and his plan was a “balanced solution.”

The Governor noted the proposed $4 million cut to the Judicial Branch saying the judiciary had already taken a $3.1 million reduction.  Together, the cuts would be about 6 percent of the two-year Judicial Branch budget.

An hour and a half later, it was the Chief Justice’s turn.  And around the room were people wearing bright yellowish stickers printed with SAVE JUSTICE.  And some of them testified in support of the Chief Justice’s position against the proposed cuts. At one point the supporters were asked to raise their hands to show legislators how many of them were there.

Legislators are used to having citizens in the State House, sometimes with badges and stickers, advocating for their positions on issues, but to have lawyers and others coming to the State House on the budget of the judiciary is a first for me.

It reflects how dire the economic situation is in New Hampshire that to save $4 million the Chief Justice says our courts will be closing.  The Governor suggests the courts become more efficient and reduce some spending on items that can be deferred.

I struggle for the words to express how critical the situation is when the Judicial Branch is petitioning and lobbying to avoid budget cuts and in so doing creating a battle line with the Governor and legislature.  This budget conflict touches on the very basis of how government is supposed to run.

*   *   *

The Governor’s plan would cut completely the $57,900 state grant to the Connecticut River Valley Resource Commission.  That grant, together with a similar grant from Vermont, is the financial foundation each year for the Connecticut River Joint Commission which is headquartered in Charlestown.

For twenty years, the Joint Commission has done great work on heritage tourism promotion and conservation and protection of the Connecticut River.  And the commission is the building block to leverage the money from Vermont and New Hampshire to generate federal and private foundation grants.  This year, for example, the $57,900 New Hampshire grant matched by Vermont brought in $954,200 of matching funds.

If the Governor’s plan to zero out the funds from New Hampshire happens, then there will not be commission funds needed to meet match requirements for federal grants.  And we will leave Vermont hanging out there alone.

The cut was proposed by the Office of Energy and Planning.  Asked for a 10 percent reduction overall, the agency met its goal in part by suggesting the Connecticut River Commission take a 100 percent cut.  That does not make sense.

*   *   *

It was very enjoyable to have Andrew and Daniel Kaedy from Charlestown serve as pages in the State Senate last week.  It worked out so that they could ride to Concord and back with me giving us a chance to talk about what to expect and then reflect on the day as we drove back.  The Kaedy brothers did a great job bringing credit to their parents, their Senator and the folks back home.

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