My Turn: State budget must address our most critical needs

Concord Monitor – May 8, 2017
My Turn: State budget must address our most critical needs
By Mary Jane Wallner

A two-year state budget is more than a bunch of numbers; it is a strategic vision for key investments in our priorities. What problems the Legislature and governor choose to address with these prioritized investments tells us a lot about what we value. New Hampshire would be well-served by a budget that offers solutions for both our immediate problems as well as our long-term issues. When asked what New Hampshire’s biggest crisis is, Granite Staters cite our epidemic of heroin and opioid use. With more than one person dying from an overdose every day, a new and deadly opioid on the streets and the problem spread all across our communities, the public clearly gets it. The House budget, which did not pass last month, failed to adequately address this No. 1 crisis.

We’ve had a funding mechanism in place for over a quarter-century to pay for substance abuse treatment services by allocating a fixed percentage of alcohol sales profits. Nearly always underfunded by millions off a 5 percent requirement, last term the Republicans actually lowered the percentage to 1.7 percent. The treatment community and the Department of Health and Human Services have advocated to restore it to 5 percent this year. At three recent public hearings across the state, members of the public joined the chorus, asking for restoration of 5 percent of alcohol profits to be used to improve access to drug abuse treatment. But for some reason, House Republicans decided to keep the funding flat for the next two years and not raise the percentage of alcohol profits that go to funding prevention and treatment services. They decided to underfund drug and alcohol abuse services by almost $7 million over the biennium despite the fact that Granite Staters tell us this issue is New Hampshire’s most pressing problem.

Not content to turn their backs on desperate people seeking substance abuse treatment, the House budget also underfunded the critical problem of community mental health treatment and, in fact, reduced the funding for services from the governor’s recommended level. We hear almost every day that dozens of individuals, in a mental health crisis, are forced to wait for days or weeks in an emergency department because there is no room at the state hospital. The department requested additional funds beyond the governor’s budget to improve community mental health treatment, preventing some of the need for emergency inpatient treatment. The House budget, however, would have left people in psychiatric crisis waiting longer. This is cruel and inhumane. It is also not necessary.

Along with ignoring our most urgent problem, the Republican majority in the House also decided not to take steps toward addressing New Hampshire’s most important long-term problem: our aging population. Our future prosperity absolutely requires that we attract young people to stay here, or to move here, and raise families. Welcoming young families requires a multi-faceted approach, but two immediate problems in the failed House budget stood out. Both focused on education, very important to families.

There is significant public support for expanding access to full-day kindergarten. Some communities have already done so, but state education aid only pays for half-day kindergarten. The burden in these towns falls on local property taxes and, therefore, families. With our declining enrollments as the state’s population ages, most of the money to expand full-day kindergarten is already available in the education trust fund. Sadly, the Republican House majority turned its backs on New Hampshire’s 6-year-olds and removed full-day kindergarten funding from the proposed budget.

Public higher education is more expensive in New Hampshire than in just about any other state. For many of our high school graduates, going to college out of state is a more affordable option, and a significant percentage of these young people will not return. The House budget funds public colleges and universities at the current level, thus guaranteeing that tuition will continue to rise. The budget essentially drives young people away from New Hampshire to pursue their dreams of a college degree, just when we need them to stay here, work and raise families. A state budget is more than a funding document; it is a prioritized vision for strategic investments in our prosperity. The House Republican budget failed to adequately address our most pressing current and future needs. Let’s hope Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can do better for the citizens of New Hampshire.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner of Concord is serving her 19th term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, representing Merrimack District 10. She is the ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee.