Capital Comments: N.H. biennial budget process underway

Capital Comments from State Senator Bob Odell

The sparring over the size of the state’s next biennial budget began last week.  Over three days, agency heads offered their wish lists for appropriations for the two year budget cycle that begins on July 1.

Presentations at the Governor’s Fiscal Year 2014-15 Operating Budget Hearing, one of several steps in the budget process, gave department heads a chance to tell their stories publicly for the first time.  They will have plenty of other opportunities down the road.

The agency heads were providing the Governor, legislators and the public with what they think the costs will be to run the current programs in each department for the next two years. Their “maintenance” budgets do not take into consideration any new programs or activities … they simply keep programs as they are.

What does that get you?  Adding up all agency requests, if approved and they won’t be, there would be additional spending of $3.3 billion over the next two years, an increase of 26 percent over current spending levels.

The heads of agencies say the current budget, which reduced spending over the prior budget by more than 10 percent, created problems in departments that need to be addressed.  The Commissioner of Corrections, for example, says by reducing staffing in the current budget,  the department has had to increase overtime for other employees creating fiscal and management challenges.

The agency in everyone’s sights is Health and Human Services.  With an annual budget of over $1 billion in combined state general fund and federal fund spending, there is a list of problems ranging from payments to hospitals for services to the indigent, payment of money to nursing homes from prior year underpayments, and other costs associated with losing lawsuits and the overall increased cost of operations.  It all adds up to proposed increased spending of $321 million more for health care or a 29 percent increase over the two year budget span.

Governor-elect Maggie Hassan’s response: The agency budget proposals are “unrealistic.”  Senate Finance Chair, Chuck Morse (Salem), said the “hearings showed just how difficult building the next budget will be.  In the General Fund alone, state agencies are requesting nearly $700 million in new spending – a 26 percent increase over our last budget.  These increases would have to be paid for by cuts in other areas of government or, more likely, through significant tax increases.”

There is some disappointment that agencies have largely ignored a 2011 law intended to have them present alternative budgets at a spending level 10 percent below current budgets.  The objective in the law was to encourage government leaders to look to innovative options for their operations and to look for efficiencies.

In the seven months left before the end of June deadline for completing the budget, there will be plenty of pulling and tugging, presentations and amendments and disappointment.  During the process, the public will have its opportunity to weigh in during hearings in the House and Senate.

The budget process for now goes to the Governor-elect.  Quietly and with negotiations with department heads, the new Governor and her staff will hammer out her version of the budget that she will be present by Feb. 15 to a joint session of the legislature.  Then, the House, now with a Democrat Party majority, will work on the Governor’s budget plan.  And sometime in April, the House version of the budget will come to the Republican majority led Senate.

Throughout the budget process, the Governor and her team as well as legislators will be keeping an eye on revenue.  Revenue is tracking the income side of the current budget but there is no growth to meet increased spending over the next two years.

The evening seemed all too short.  For the guests, it was an event of less than 30 minutes, but to be long remembered.  For the poet and writer of prose, he could not been more articulate and beautifully spoken but by his own comment, he was worn out at the end.

Hosted by Morgan Hill Bookstore at the Tracy Library in New London last Thursday night, Donald Hall’s reading of the first chapter of his new book, “Christmas at Eagle Pond,” was a success.  The brevity of the program took away nothing from the experience of spending a few minutes listening to Donald Hall read of a train trip many years ago when he left his parents in Connecticut and traveled to the Gale depot in West Andover to spend Christmas with his maternal grandparents.

Less than 100 pages long, Hall’s book builds on his summers spent in New Hampshire to envision a Christmas spent at Eagle Pond Farm in 1940.  He writes in the author’s note at the end of the book, “In this book, I have given myself the thing I most wanted, a boyhood Christmas at Eagle Pond Farm.”

Our region is full of talented and special people.  Donald Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States and a major literary figure of our times, returned to Eagle Pond Farm for good in 1975 and since then has quietly lived amongst us.  He contributes to the richness of life in rural New Hampshire and to the legacy of the places we live.

I am thankful I could be a simple listener and observer of Donald Hall last week.  It was a time to be treasured.

Sen. Bob Odell (R-Lempster)  represents District 8:  Acworth, Antrim, Bennington, Bradford, Croydon, Deering, Francestown, Grantham, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, New London, Newbury, Newport, Springfield, Stoddard, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Washington, Weare and Windsor.

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