Capital Comments: Friday’s budget session…

This week the Senate Finance Committee continues to hear from departments and agencies; voting on the budget begins the week of May 9th. This week’s column describes last Friday’s session and two items before the committee: Service Link and a program called Children in Need of Services (CHINS). Both programs were not funded in the budget passed by the House of Representatives.

By State Senator Bob Odell

On Friday as I was driving to Concord, I listened to New Hampshire Public Radio for a few minutes as I often do as I switch between WNTK and NHPR during my morning commute.

Dan Gorenstein, a State House reporter, was telling the story of how lobbyists, not-for-profits as well as individuals are besieging the seven senators who sit on the Finance Committee.  Using interviews with Chuck Morse (Salem), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senate President Bragdon (Milford), Dan related how those who are looking for funding in the budget for the next two years for their favored agencies are chasing down finance committee members to plead their case.

I know what Dan is reporting.  As vice chair of the Finance Committee, I am used to meetings whenever we have breaks from committee sessions.  The 15 or 30 minute meetings are pretty straightforward and the context clear.  There may be details to learn but overall the next budget is going to see reduced spending over the current biennium in many areas.

And with a major shortfall in revenue in April, just like April last year, there is no optimism for dramatically increased revenue in the next two years even as we expect, and hope, the economy recovers.

After listening to Dan’s story, what happened in the Finance Committee on Friday?  I use Friday morning as an example of our regular finance sessions to let readers understand the process.

Our meeting room is filled and those arriving late have to stand or sit awkwardly on a desk along the side of the room.  There are representatives of different departments along with some staffers, a legislator or two and two or three press people.

Most chairs were filled with lobbyists wearing their bright orange name tags.   On Friday morning as we began there were lobbyists in the room representing community action programs, private nursing homes, county nursing homes, regional mental health agencies, hospitals, community health centers and others I could not tie to their sponsor.  Given that lineup no one will be surprised that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was before the committee.

HHS is nearly a $700 million department spending $3 million each day.  Only a couple of items were addressed on Friday, Service Link and a program called Children in Need of Services (CHINS).  Both programs were not funded in the budget passed by the House of Representatives.

CHINS serves about 400 children who are in the court system.  About 150 of the children have been ordered by judges to live in facilities apart from their family.

Around 50 of these children are deemed too dangerous to themselves or their families to consider sending home even if the CHINS program is shut down  The department is proposing to find the money elsewhere to pay for services for these 50 children.  The other 100 children currently in out of home placements would be returned to their parents.

This plan creates two problems as I see it.  First, the children being returned home have been deemed to be at some level “out of control” and have needed to be dealt with outside their home.  So, by returning these children to their family home, we may be putting them in an environment in which they cannot succeed.  And if they do not succeed, the pattern is that they will be back in the court system, homeless or in some other unfortunate circumstance.

Secondly, for the out-of-home placements, the state contracts with facilities around state.  With two-thirds of the children currently in these facilities moving back to their homes, revenue for these facilities will dry up.  Maggie Bishop from HHS, responding to a question from me, said “some facilities will close’ unless they are able to create new revenue.

The House budget ends CHINS completely.  The department’s response is that 400 youngsters currently served will be reduced to just 50 who are dangerous and must be kept in residences away from their homes for their safety and the safety of their families.  In the short term, the department’s plan allows for reduced spending.  Will there be other costs down the road?  And will children who receive services currently be less successful in their lives without the state’s help?

About a decade ago, the state established Service Link offices around the state to assist seniors with their long term planning.  The Service Link program has an office in Claremont for Sullivan County, one in Keene for Cheshire County and one in Concord for Merrimack County.
Overall, Service Link handles about 85,000 calls a year.

If you are a senior or have tried to help a senior, you know mastering the Medicare Part D benefit law, or signing someone up for Medicaid or making a decision about long term housing options  is a tough and complicated process.  Service Link, for many of us, has proven how vital it is in helping seniors and others who need help.

The House eliminated all funding for Service Link.  The Senate heard on Friday that for each dollar the state spends we leverage $4 in federal money that comes back to New Hampshire.  That is a pretty compelling story and this program is getting a second look from the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate Finance Committee process continues to hear from departments and agencies this week.  Voting item by item on the budget begins the week of May 9th.

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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