Balancing NH’s Budget Is No Easy Task With ‘The Pledge’

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Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough

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By Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough

CONCORD – The House passed its budget last week, ending the months’ long efforts of our hard-working Finance Committee members and the Legislative Budget Assistant’s staff. Crafting a balanced budget that meets the needs of Granite Staters is no easy task, given our limited means. Thank you.

Budget votes usually fall along party lines, although not always. I’ve voted on five budgets, and two have had remarkable outcomes. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the House, Republicans the Senate, and Maggie Hassan was a first-term governor, the vote to pass the budget was unanimous in both houses. And in 2017, when Republicans controlled both chambers AND the corner office, the House budget failed to pass at all, leaving the Senate in complete control of the process.

Former Representative Neal Kurk once told the Legislative Youth Advisory Council the budget is a reflection of the State’s priorities, but I think it is more accurate to say the House’s budget is a reflection of the majority’s priorities. I know this one certainly is.

When talking to voters about issues before the election, we heard repeatedly two major concerns—ever-rising property taxes, and school funding. Indeed, when school districts sent representatives to testify on proposed legislation, there was a sense of urgency in their voices not heard to this degree before. Decisions made by the legislature in the past to cut or eliminate altogether certain aid to school districts was taking a toll. Local resources were stretched to the limit, and property taxpayers simply could not take any more. Districts were being forced to eliminate programs, get rid of teachers, and close schools.

When House Democrats met to set our priorities early in the term, it became obvious we had to address these issues head on. No more kicking the can down the road. Increasing aid to schools and sending more assistance to cities and towns to help reduce property taxes became our top budget goals.

Our Republican colleagues love to remind us—many times they remind us—that we should budget like a family does, that we must “live within our means.” And they are right, we must. We are required to have a balanced budget.

All this is well and good, but things begin to get difficult when we are forced to budget by pledge as well.

The Pledge used to mean no income or sales tax, and clever Republicans in times past were able to cobble together a combination of fees and taxes that they could increase when needed to keep the state afloat. And yes, it was our Republican forerunners who did this. All state taxes and most fees were enacted by Republican administrations during their 100+ years of control of the State House.

But since Americans for Prosperity’s rise to power, the parameters have changed. Now many, if not most, Republican legislators pledge to “Cut taxes and fees and oppose any tax increase. Cut spending and the size of government.” This kind of pledge leaves us in a bind. When times are good, we can increase funding to needed programs and services, but when times are bad, we are forced to cut. When costs rise, as they always do, we are forced to rob Peter to pay Paul. On top of all that, the last few Republican budgets cut business tax rates, assuring lower revenues, more cuts and robbing, in those hard times sure to come.

The cuts and robbing result in agencies and services so underfunded and understaffed that crises occur. Severe understaffing at DCYF results in caseworkers with 44 or more cases each, when the nationally accepted maximum is 12. Child deaths have occurred. Mentally ill patients are forced to wait in hospital emergency rooms for days or even weeks before a placement can be found for them. There is a long waitlist for services for the developmentally disabled, causing extreme hardship for those families. Promised aid to cities and towns is cut or eliminated, downshifting the burden to local taxpayers. Schools, hospitals, and the mental health providers bring us to court for failing to meet our obligations.

We end up legislating by lawsuit.

None of this makes sense to me. Families budget and live within their means, but when the cost of heating oil goes up and the kids need new shoes, and there isn’t enough money coming in to pay for both, families don’t turn off the heat or make the kids go barefoot. Someone gets a second job. And if Dad gets a raise, Mom sure as heck doesn’t cut back her hours to keep the income the same.

But, back to this year’s budget, and priorities. This budget sends $160 million in additional aid to school districts, provides an additional $19 million for school building aid and fully funds anticipated special education reimbursements, among other things. It reinstates the state’s municipal revenue sharing program, sending $12.5 million back to cities and towns in 2021. It appropriates money for state grants for the 58 wastewater projects completed in communities as of 2018.

It fully funds the waitlist for services for the developmentally disabled. It provides funding for various aspects of the 10-year mental health plan, including an additional mobile crisis unit, hospital beds, and transitional housing. It increases staffing at DCYF and provides the funds to pay them.

It provides $32 million more in funding for the community college and university systems.

It spends $300 million more than Governor Sununu proposed, a 2.3% increase.

To pay for these things, we modified the current interest and dividends tax to include capital gains, maintained the business tax rates at 2018 levels and kept the taxes on sports betting and e-cigarettes included in Governor Sununu’s budget.

Far from being irresponsible, this budget is balanced, fair, and addresses the needs of the people of New Hampshire. It goes a long way in dealing with the school funding crisis and takes strong steps to help reduce property taxes, all without a broad-based tax.

And for my hometown of Hillsborough, this budget is a very good deal. If it passes, our school district is projected to see a $2.3 million increase in state aid over the biennium, which should go a long way in reducing our school tax rate.

Not bad.

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