State senator mulls competing budget priorities

Tightening the budget

Kai Ryssdal: Here's a new twist on the state budget cuts story we've all heard and read so many times over the past couple of years. About a month and a half ago, the New Hampshire House voted to cut $650 million from the budget -- about 13 percent of all state spending. The debate moves to the senate now, where advocates for various programs are lobbying and negotiating to save their slice of the pie. So far, pretty straightforward.

The part we don't hear so often, though, is how lawmakers actually decide where the budget axe should fall. New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein has the story.

Dan Gorenstein: Time is at a premium right now for Republican Senate President Peter Bragdon. He's one of seven senators on the Finance Committee. And he's hearing from people hoping to restore cuts the House made, whether from lobbyists...

Lobbyist: There are some things that have caused us all a great amount of concern, and we'd like to share that with you and some thoughts about how it might be different.

In committee hearings...

Woman at hearing: We're here to make the case for the university system.

Or meeting with constituents.

Peter Bragdon: Hi, Peter Bragdon.

Kathy Manfre: Nice to meet you.

Brian Manfre: I'm Brian Manfre.

Bragdon: Brian, Kathy. Good to meet you folks. Come on in.

The Manfres have come to make the case against budget cuts for the developmentally disabled.

Kathy Manfre: We are here on behalf of our daughter, Emily, who will be turning 21 in November. She is born with autism. If there is no funding for her, we are concerned about the options that are left to us and to her.

New Hampshire faces an estimated $700 million deficit. And last fall, Republicans made a campaign promise.

Bragdon: No new taxes or fees.

They now control both chambers of the legislature, so Bragdon knows programs will be slashed and people won't get services they may have gotten last year. He says that grim reality is why he typically starts off all budget meetings with one of his favorite lines.

Bragdon: 'By the way, we're broke.' It's a laugh. It lightens the air, and then allows us to proceed with the nitty gritty.

But in that meeting with the Manfres, he didn't use it.

Bragdon: I am pretty tight fiscally, there is no doubt about it.

House lawmakers voted to cut $20 million from programs for the developmental disabled like the Manfres' daughter.

Bragdon: But within the Senate Finance Committee, mental health and developmental disabilities are very high concerns. And we will try our best to get the funds back there.

Kathy Manfre: Good to hear. This has been very fruitful, thank you.

But if Bragdon wants to restore that funding, he knows other programs will lose out. Higher education already took a $45 million hit in the House budget. Bragdon concedes the reduction could mean fewer scholarships for low-income students.

Bragdon: You know, a legitimate concern, something the state has funded. But if I look at that compared to mental health services to developmental disabilities, that kind of struck me as there are options to these people. Whether it's through family, or through work, or going to a different college than the expensive one they may want to go to. Whereas the person that needs the mental health services, right away, there are not a lot of other options to take care of that.

As Bragdon weighs competing funding priorities, people like child advocate Jackie Cowell are warning that short-term budgets cuts could result in larger costs down the road.

Jackie Cowell: You don't fund childcare, you are going to have more people on welfare, which costs the state more money. It's very frustrating.

Last year on the campaign trail, it was easy to talk about wasteful spending. But Bragdon admits when he thinks about people who get state services and why they get those services -- shrinking the size of government is actually pretty hard to do.

Bragdon: Sitting over there in the corner of my office is a poster made by folks who do alcohol counseling as a proactive, preventative measure, and there's some legitimate policy reasons that could be made why doing things on a proactive, preventative basis may actually save money and be better for society in the long run.

That's why Bragdon would like to say yes as he meets with lobbyists and constituents over the coming weeks. But he says he knows that isn't going to happen.

In Concord, N.H., I'm Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.
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I think you really dropped the ball on this story.

You do a budget story on NH like it's just any other cash-strapped state with legislators making hard choices, and make no mention of:

1. Our long and rather singular history of working through tax policy questions, with outsized property taxes and fees in lieu of sales and income taxes--not that you have to take a position, but this history is of course central to our budgetary situation.

2. The fact that these legislators who are purportedly making hard, reasonable choices are massively unpopular--a recent UNH poll asking what respondents thought was the biggest problem the state faces found republicans to be the third-most worrisome category (more worrisome than taxes, for pete's sake).

3. The Republican majority's concerns are *not* all budgetary--they are trying to destroy collective bargaining rights in the state, and have spent their time fighting absurd social issues. Moreover, this is causing massive fractures *within* the Republican party. So there's another non-partisan angle for another massively important aspect of this story that you failed to tell because you were too busy doing a puff piece that makes this deeply irresponsible leader of this deeply irresponsible party look like an elder statesman.

And will you provide a substantive follow-up story, in which you break down what Bragdon's final choices were and tell us what constituencies ended up losing and what winning. If he doesn't restore substantial amounts of funding to people with developmental disabilities, you're going to interview him and ask him why, right?

Six years ago, a co-worker told me, straight to my face, that the only reason he moved his family to New Jersey was because West Virginia would not support insurance and educational needs for his autistic son (this service was finally mandated by WV one month ago, April 2011). The co-worker could not pay thousands of dollars for the services, so he moved to a state that mandated it, putting the burden on another state's taxpayers, one of the reasons New Jersey has the highest rates of autism in the nation.

It's nice to know New Hampshire would rather keep their state sales-tax-free AND income-tax-free, rather than provide these services. They'd rather dump their problems on another state, rather than man-up and provide these services. Just because a state is low-tax doesn't mean it's a great place to live (or has a very compassionate voting constituency).

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