Budget fails the common-sense test
By Arnie Alpert
Published in the Concord Monitor June 20, 2011
Link: State facing compassion deficit
New Hampshire legislators may have produced a balanced budget, but they have left the state with deficits in other areas that will be harder to close than a fiscal gap.
Starting from Gov. John Lynch's budget, which cut state spending by 5 percent, the House and Senate cut deeper. By the time they were done, state spending levels were cut by somewhere between 11 and 13 percent, depending on whose figures you are using.
Whatever the numbers, the damage includes:
• Elimination of the "Unemployed Parents" Program, which will end cash assistance and employment training to more than 250 two-parent families, more than one-third of them refugees;
• Changes in eligibility rules for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ending benefits to 1100 families in which a member is also receiving disability benefits;
• Changes in Aid for the Permanently and Totally Disabled that will affect more than 400 families a year.
These cuts take cash out of poor people's empty pockets.
Then there are the cuts to programs, such as those provided by New Hampshire Legal Services, which help indigent people get access to benefits or stay in their homes. There are cuts to hospital reimbursements. Massive cuts to the university system will secure New Hampshire's status as the state with the lowest level of support for higher education.
State funding will end for sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment and HIV counseling, testing and referral services. The funds now provide support for 20 clinics statewide, which together served 6,000 people last year and which up to this point have been able to provide services regardless of ability to pay.
Every cut is also a pink slip to a state worker or someone who works for an agency that provides services. More than 200 state workers will lose their jobs. The number of those who lose jobs at private agencies will be higher and harder to count.
The agreed-upon budget restores some funding to mental health, disability and elder services programs that were slashed by the House but still leave them with fewer resources than they have at present. The House language which would have effectively ended collective bargaining for public sector workers is gone, but a study committee on the topic has been created and more than 15 bills on this theme have already been filed for next year. Plans to ship up to 600 prisoners to for-profit institutions in other states have been put on hold, but the Department of Corrections has been ordered to study the idea and take bids from private firms.
The provision to weaken the historic responsibility of cities and towns to provide emergency assistance to their residents was deleted.
Yes, it could have been worse, but that is small consolation to workers losing their jobs, poor people losing benefits, students whose already high tuition will spike, and everyone who needs or might need help addressing illness or disability.
We may enter July without a fiscal deficit, but the budget has opened up a compassion deficit that is gaping wider than ever. Saying, as some legislators have, that aid for the needy should be the responsibility of private charities and religious congregations is a moral cop-out. As Dick Ober, president of the state's largest philanthropic organization says of the possibility that churches and charities would pick up the slack, "This is simply not possible."
The state will also see a widening social justice deficit, with more people vulnerable to falling through the holes in the social safety net and turning to their local governments for emergency assistance.
We also face a huge common-sense deficit. According to a Census report for last November, New Hampshire tops the states in median household income. It is simply foolish to say we do not have the resources to do better.