State senator mulls competing budget priorities

Dan Gorenstein May 9, 2011

State senator mulls competing budget priorities

Dan Gorenstein May 9, 2011

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.

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