Distant Dome: Budgets Hold Secrets to Discover

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Nancy West photo

Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

For the next two weeks, the House’s two-year budget proposal will dominate the activity.

The House has trimmed some of Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget of $14.06 billion in total funds and $5.95 billion of general and education fund money.

The House Ways and Means Committee estimates for the next two years for state revenue is $131 million less than the governor’s.

The governor’s budget plan projects a surplus at the end of the current biennium June 30 of $254 million.

So that surplus with the House estimates would be lowered to $122 million of money to “play with” for House budget writers.

Is it any wonder the House balked at such things as $75 million in a one-time shot to the school building aid program, which is running way behind requests for state help with building projects, and a 12 percent salary increase for state workers over the next two years of the biennium.

The House also balked at increasing provider rates for the Medicaid program and used what amounts to surplus funds to pay some operating expenses particularly in Health and Human Services.

For example, developmentally disabled services are projected to lapse (money appropriated but not spent) $25  million this biennium.

Instead of using general fund money going forward to maintain the services, the House Finance Committee is proposing the lapsed money be used to reduce new state money for the next biennium.

While that may look like a wash, the lapse money is used to determine the projected surplus at the end of this fiscal year so that would be reduced by $25 million.

The committee did the same thing with $2.7 million in lapsed money for children’s services.

Another change to the governor’s budget is the state’s alcohol fund which is 5 percent of Liquor Commission revenues.

Sununu wanted to use some of the money for the Granite Advantage Plan, but the House retained all 5 percent for the alcohol fund, which pays for addiction treatment and support.

The subcommittee working on the Health and Human Services’ budget, decided to cut family planning services in half, and added a back-of-the-budget, across-the-board cut of $23.4 million to help balance its budget proposal and essentially leave the reduction decisions to the commissioner and her staff.

The amendment for that cut also caps the number of employees at the agency at 3,000, which is less than the currently authorized positions.

Former long-time HHS comptroller James Fredyma used to say when lawmakers began cutting money from the agency’s budget, “It’s only money,” meaning statutes require many of the services to be provided so they will have to be funded anyway.

The governor’s past few budgets have looked at the cap on counties’ contribution to nursing home costs the same way, “It’s only money.”
His budgets have increased the cap the counties would have to pay while reducing the state contribution making a bad deal worse.

The state and counties reached agreement many years ago, that the counties would pay a greater share of nursing home costs, while the state would pick up a greater share of the costs of programs for troubled youths.

Not long after the agreement during a budget crunch, the state eliminated the Children in Need of Services or CHINS program, the most costly of those for at-risk youths.

When it was reinstated after an uproar from many sectors, the court system was eliminated from the decision-making process making the program much less costly.

The House budget includes additional money to hold the counties at their current level of commitment, which in turn will prevent the county portion of your property tax bill from increasing significantly.

If you know what you are looking for, the budget can predict the future.

For example, the significant surplus in the Education Trust Fund is depleted in each of the next two years in both the House’s and governor’s budget plan.

At the end of this biennium, the trust fund is projected to have a surplus of $183.8 million, which is substantial considering for most of its existence there was not enough money in it to cover the costs of the adequacy grants to cities and towns for their school districts and general fund money had to supplement the trust fund.

Most of the money raised for the fund goes to adequacy grants and per-pupil grants to charter schools. The fund also covers special education aid, building aid, and beginning in the 2022 fiscal year, the Education Freedom Account grants, which greatly exceeded department estimates.

The fund has adequate money now to cover the substantial overrun of more than $20 million.

But GOP lawmakers want to expand the program by increasing the income threshold from 300 to 350 percent of poverty and making more children eligible to participate like those on the free and reduced lunch program or in foster care.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Sununu estimate the program will cost $30 million in each year of the coming biennium, but depending on those estimates is not something — given their track record — you would want to take to the bank.

According to information from the Legislative Budget Assistant, the projected surplus will be reduced by $44 million in each of the next two fiscal years, lowering the surplus to $140 million at the end of fiscal 2024, and $96 million after fiscal 2025.

Of the $44 million, you know $30 million a year is for the EFA program and if you have been following what the money is used for, you know that about 75 percent of it is paying tuition to religious — mostly — and private schools and home school programs for students who were in those schools, etc. before the EFA program began in 2022,

The big beneficiaries have been Catholic and Christian schools.

The tuition and home school programs students will account for about $45 million of the $60 million over the next two years if things continue as they have been the first two years.

The program was sold as a way for low- to-moderate income parents to find the most appropriate educational fit for their child if public schools are not the best place for the students.

But that is not what is happening.

And if you project out for two more years, you can see the Education Trust Fund surplus will all but disappear after the 2026-27 biennium with a $44 million yearly deficit.

That is when the public schools will be asked to do more with less money unless some changes are made in the EFA program to limit the use of state tax dollars for religious and private school tuition.

But in the current environment, that is not likely to happen. The focus will be on how to cut funding for public schools.

The situation is like the Mark Erelli song “By Degrees.” with its chorus of “You can learn to live with anything/ When it happens by degrees.”

The question is whether the majority of the state is willing to downgrade public education by degrees so more tuition subsidies can go to parents who want their children to attend religious or private schools at taxpayer expense.

Elections have consequences.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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