'In the House, a demolition derby'

Last modified: 4/3/2011 12:00:00 AM
We live in one of the richest states in the union. Our overall tax burden is near the bottom. When lists are compiled of the healthiest and safest places to live, we are inevitably at or near the top. Despite the lingering effects of the worst recession in generations, even our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country. Most of us enjoy a quality of life that is one of the best in human history.

And so there is something profoundly sad about seeing a group of largely well-heeled, comfortable people - secure enough to work endless hours for a measly 100 bucks a year - not only shredding the safety net of vital services that so many less fortunate people depend on but seeming to take such pleasure in it.

That is what the current leadership in the state Legislature - especially in the House of Representatives - is doing. And doing with a huge amount of smug self-satisfaction. Take Tom Keane, a new Republican rep from Bow. Cuts to mental health programs? Hey, no problem, he airily assured New Hampshire Public Radio's Elaine Grant.

Those 3,500 or so seriously troubled children who might go without help? Schools would be able to handle the load! Although I do confess to wondering if Keane's checked with the Bow School Board - of which he is a member - on that grandiose promise.

And adults with grave mental health issues? Why, Keane says, cutting off funding for them will only make the agencies that try to serve them more efficient!

Of course we shouldn't be surprised. Keane is symptomatic of a House membership which seems to be best personified by Kingston's Ken Weyler, who (one would think) has been around long enough to know better. Yet the retired airline pilot couldn't help proclaiming that metal health providers try to create "patients for life." And that it's crazy to coddle a mother suffering from post-partum depression once her baby "becomes a little more animated."

According to NHPR, this is the same guy whose solution for working women who need help in caring for their children, based on his own experiences decades ago, is that mothers should "swap childcare."

Talk about sound public policy in the 21st century.

Keane and Weyler are among those in the House's veto-proof majority who last week voted to slash funds for mental health providers, domestic violence programs, disease prevention services, and child care subsidies for poor working parents. They and their like-minded pals also cut deeply into support for the University of New Hampshire, the state highway department and the Department of Corrections.

Essentially, if their votes stand, they will have managed to decimate an entire delicately constructed system of public and social services that ingenious Granite Staters had cobbled together over many years to try to ensure that the limited dollars available here in the Cheapskate State were able to provide a minimum of help to some of our neediest citizens and to ensure a decent quality of life and services to all of us.

But somehow, even as they were pleading poverty while decimating social programs, they managed to cut the state cigarette tax by 10 cents a pack. Well, y'know, we have to have priorities.

In addition to their budgeting butchery, the new legislators - who came to Concord loaded with opinions and largely unencumbered by any knowledge of how our government actually works - couldn't seem to stop wielding their sledge hammers. In fact, they've been so busy that the Monitor has had to assign not one but two hard-working reporters to the State House.

In a big move, probably not anticipated by many who voted for them, they portrayed public employees as public enemies and passed legislation that would essentially destroy their unions by stripping their members of the right to collective bargaining. That last minute (and utterly unrelated) "amendment" tacked onto the basic budget bill by Weare's Neal Kurk, was a perfect partner to the deceptively named Right to Work bill passed earlier in an effort to kill private as well as public sector unions.

These were in addition to a series of smaller moves that vividly demonstrate the meanness of spirit permeating the current wrecking crew in the House. Despite the programs' minimal (at best) impact on the state's budget, Republicans showed a particular malice as they voted to eliminate the state's arts council - making New Hampshire the only state in the union without such a thing - and a totally volunteer commission to study the feasibility of reinstituting railroad service in the state. New Hampshire Public Television - whose most controversial programs include the likes of Curious George and Wildlife Journal - was stripped by statute of any state funding. And, for good measure, all state entities are forbidden from cooperating in any way with NHPTV.

The list goes on. And on. And on.

The House's deliberate demolition derby hasn't gone unnoticed by the electorate, and up to 4,000 protesters - the largest crowd seen at the State House in decades - assembled in Concord Thursday. Dubbing the protesters "thugs," House Speaker Bill O'Brien ordered the visitors' gallery of the House closed despite a constitutional provision saying that the doors "shall be kept open to all persons who behave decently." The gallery was reopened only when (apparently) a threatened lawsuit persuaded self-styled constitutional scholar O'Brien that video cameras are not, in fact, an adequate substitute for actual people.

The House, of course, approved the draconian budget despite the protests. Now the hope among many is that a more sober New Hampshire Senate will save the day.

Fat chance, I fear. Largely shielded from scrutiny by the rancorous House, senators have been quietly going about their own business. Said business includes weakening teacher tenure in the state, substantially raising interest caps on short-term loans (akin to the predatory payday loans we succeeded in getting rid of a couple of years ago) and - my own favorite - "reforming and renaming the comprehensive shoreland protection act." "Reforming" in this case, means gutting a lot of the hard-won gains we've made in protecting the lakes and ponds that make up such an important part of our ecology and economy.

Had enough? Well, wait for next year. That's when our legislators have pledged to reopen the social and cultural wars that we'd thought we'd left behind us. Only a real cynic would point out that this will be a fine way to fire up their conservative base in an election year.

It's a great time for cartoonists and columnists. But for regular people? Not so much.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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