My Turn: In the N.H. Senate, some steps forward, some steps back
Many have commented on the Republican Senate majority’s refusal to accept billions of new dollars in Medicaid money to pay for health care for our poorest residents. Refusing this money makes no sense financially or as a public policy position.
It does, however, represent the continuation by the Republican majority in the Senate of the ideological agenda pursued by Bill O’Brien and his cohorts in the last session. I just wish that this was the only example of the Republican Senate majority continuing down this narrow, ideological line during the current budget negotiations.
Failing to pass increases in tobacco taxes or to finance clearly needed highway and bridge construction, just so they can claim “no new taxes or fees,” is extreme and irresponsible, especially given our high rates of youth smoking and the disrepair of our roads and bridges. This is just one of the additional ways that the majority in the Senate has failed to get the message of the last election: Abandon divisive arguments and govern in a bipartisan fashion for the best for all of New Hampshire.
One challenge facing both houses this session was how to restore foolish cuts made to priorities like health care and higher education that bipartisan majorities have long funded.
Supported by Gov. Maggie Hassan, Speaker Terie Norelli and the Senate Finance Committee, the budget returns $70 million to the university system, $20 million to the community colleges, and re-establishes the UNIQUE scholarship program for needy students with $24 million. Higher education is a prerequisite for an innovative economy and, working together, the Legislature has reaffirmed the state’s commitment to our colleges and universities. We shouldn’t forget, however, that New Hampshire still funds our university system at the lowest rate in the country, causing high tuition costs and higher student loan debt than any other state.
In the budget currently in the committee of conference, neither Hassan nor Norelli nor Senate Republicans nor I and the other Democrats got everything we wanted, but we have made a start by increased funding to programs like higher education and mental health services, and funding the wait list. We have proved that our Legislature can still reach consensus and pass important, common-sense legislation.
Unfortunately, agreement on these priorities has proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Another example demonstrates the frustrations the Senate majority has caused. In 2012, funding for testing sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS was cut. Such testing allows at-risk people to get checked, get cleared or get treatment.
This modest funding – $690,000 over two years – allowed the at-risk to learn the truth of their situation. Undiagnosed HIV/AIDS can be a death sentence, and, in addition to the tragic human costs, the dollars attached to treating a person suffering with HIV/AIDS can be enormous.
People who can’t afford testing likely can’t afford treatment, so we are putting the state in the position of paying for costly treatments for years, maybe decades, to come. By simply restoring the pre-2012 fee for a marriage license, these services could have been provided for just $5 more per license. Refusing to fund this testing just to repeat the mantra, “We, the Republican Senate, have put forth a balanced budget with no new taxes or fees,” seems cruel.
With our new House and Senate this year, we were optimistic that critical programs like these would be immediately restored and that the state could make the investments necessary to strengthen our economy, improve the lives of residents and avoid much greater costs, both in human suffering and in taxpayer money. We were disappointed. A majority of the Senate, led by Senate President Peter Bragdon, voted time and again against such services and investments at a long-term cost that will take years to fully appreciate.
The voters unambiguously sent a message last November that the radical agenda of the previous two years was a failure and that they wanted a return to smart and responsible government. Unfortunately, some in the Senate obviously didn’t get the memo.
(State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat, lives in Portsmouth.)