Capital Comments: Personal stories put faces to NH budget bills

By Senator Bob Odell

“This is amazing,” Diane Woods of Durham said, as she began her testimony before last Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee public hearing on the budget bills, House Bills 1 and 2.

More than 400 people signed up to speak.  And many of them got to speak during the 8 and 3/4 hours public hearing that was broken up only by a one hour recess for dinner.  Starting at 2 PM and concluding close to 11 PM, any citizen could sign up and when their name was called briefly present their story or background on how the proposed budget from the House would impact them.

For most of the time, six of the seven members of the Senate Finance Committee were at a table in the front of the room.  The hearing room was Representatives Hall with 400 seats and an hundred or so more in the gallery.  Every seat appeared to be taken when the hearing was opened.

Ms. Woods is correct.  It is an amazing process that allows any citizen to come and tell their story.  Many citizens fear and have deep concern that the cuts made by the House will stand.  You wish there could be more calm as the Senate has yet to put its imprint on the budget but if you are hanging by a thread and completely in fear that the House budget will stand and a program you need is being eliminated, you can understand the concern.

In some cases, those presenting were professionals including lobbyists serving the hospital association or Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.  The chief of Healthy Kids, the insurance program for children, warned against moving the program back into the government from her not-for-profit agency.

Two former Senators returned to offer their perspectives.  Harold Janeway (Webster) asked the Senate to reject the House’s plan to use any excess revenue over budget estimates to add to the “rainy day” fund or reduce taxes.  He said we should use that money to restore valuable programs that we may have to cut in the Senate budget.

Ned Gordon (Bristol) returned to the State House to advocate for adequate funding for alcohol and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.  He said the state is in the alcohol sales business … we are not just imposing a tax as we do on tobacco products … and thus we have a greater responsibility serve those with addictions caused in part by the alcohol products we sell.

Mostly, of course, it was citizens who have family members receiving mental health or disabilities services upon which they are dependent.  Their stories are real and while each is different there is a common thread.  None of them asked to have a child born with severe disabilities or mental illness but that is their reality.  And these children, as an example, when they become 21 become the responsibility of the state to provide for them.  Few families could handle the expenses of the high cost of treatment and care without state support.

The personal stories put faces to the lines and lines of cold, hard figures in the thousands of pages in our budget books that we peruse during our deliberations.  And the hearing is an amazing and important contribution that New Hampshire makes to keep our democracy strong.  Legislators letting fellow citizens come before them to listen and learn.  The stories are tough to hear and not easy for legislators but important for citizens and our democracy.

As long as the hearing are and as powerfully the stories pull at your heart, I am confident I am a better legislator for hearing them.  I hope I am a better person, too.

Our state courts are going to look different in the future.  While there is no change ahead for the Supreme Court and our superior courts, the new state circuit courts will replace the current probate and district courts and the judicial branch family division.  Each county will have a circuit court.

These changes are in House Bill 609 which passed the Senate last Wednesday on a voice vote and is on its way to the Governor for signature.  I will report down the road on the implementation of the new court plan.

Our rural post offices and their postmasters play key roles in the daily lives of the people in thousands of small towns across America.  And it is true in towns like Lempster where I live.

In Lempster, some of us have no home delivery.  We are provided with a free postal box but have to pick up our own mail.  That puts us in front of our postmaster more often than most people.

Last Friday I was picking up my mail and Wayne Strycharz told me he was finishing up his career this week and moving on to some form of retirement not yet fully determined.  He is in his 11th year of serving us in Lempster and those us who are regulars will miss him.

Friendships grown and strengthened around the counter at the post office are wonderful traditions still kept in our smaller communities.  They are part of the reason we like living in small towns.  And to Wayne, you have our thanks for your service, friendship and for being an important part of our town for more than a decade.  We wish you well in the years ahead.

Senator Odell represents Senate District 8: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland. He is the chairman of the following committees: Ways and Means; Energy, Environment and Economic Development; and Finance. He is also on the Capital Budget Committee.

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