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Senate budget writers hear from long line of people who want more money in state budget

Last modified: 5/7/2015 12:27:08 AM
Elaine Fagga got health insurance for the first time in her adult life under New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion plan.

The Lempster resident asked lawmakers to keep funding the program through the state budget.

“I’ve had to rely on charity care my entire life,” said Fagga, who has been a foster mother for the past 26 years. “I can now get access to my medications I need to care for everybody in my house.”

Sarah Croitoru, who is about to graduate from Keene State College, wants students to be able to afford higher education. She asked lawmakers to further fund the state’s university system, which graduates students with some the highest debt loads in the country.

Belmont resident Darcy Ess, whose 23-year-old son Camren died of an overdose last year, demanded more state funding to treat substance addiction.

“My son Camren’s life matters,” she said. “We cannot cut these budgets. If we cut the budget on these programs, we’re almost inviting dealers to come to New Hampshire.”

The three were among hundreds of people who came before Senate budget writers yesterday to advocate for further state funding of a variety of services, ranging from tourism promotion to Meals on Wheels.

New Hampshire lawmakers are in the process of crafting the state’s next two-year budget, set to take effect July 1.

The Republican-controlled Senate is currently working off an $11.2 billion House-approved plan, which some have criticized because it effectively eliminates some programs, raids more than $50 million from a dedicated fund meant to promote renewable energy and wipes out the $10 million balance of the state’s rainy day fund.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in February presented her $11.5 billion budget plan, which relied on raising state revenue by increasing the cigarette tax and vehicle registration fees, among other things. Those options, removed from the budget by the House, have faced criticism from Republicans.

By the beginning of the Senate hearing, which started at 3 p.m., all 400 seats in Representatives Hall had filled up. The line for signing up to testify stretched roughly 50-people long and snaked out the door into the hall.

The Senate has until the beginning of June to vote on a state spending plan, before lawmakers hammer out a proposal to send to Hassan.

Senate budget writers have signaled they want to restore many of the services and the funding reduced under the House plan. But that hinges on how much money the state has to spend.

“We’re all in favor of giving them the money,” said Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. “The more revenue there is, the more you can do.”

The Senate is still crafting its own revenue estimates, which many expect will be higher than the House’s projections and offer the Senate some spending leeway.

While state revenue is above target for the year, business taxes are lagging.

Many of those who testified at the public hearing yesterday advocated for funding mental health services, domestic violence prevention, homeless shelters and the Department of Health and Human Services, including a restoration of millions of dollars in funding for programs that serve people with developmental disabilities, which the House reduced in Hassan’s proposal.

Amy Mitz of Sugar Hill has two sons who will begin utilizing that funding in six months when they turn 21.

“We’re at the mercy of whatever the monies are,” she said. “We need ongoing sufficient funding, not something that stops and starts. We’re at their whim.”

Others advocated for restoration of tourism promotion funding and to undo a raid of the renewable energy fund, which gives rebates to residents looking to install solar panels or wood pellet boilers. Most testimony was met with heavy applause from the roughly 500 people in attendance.

Many pushed for further funding to prevent and treat substance abuse.

It took a while for Lance Alonardo of Northfield to get into a rehabilitation center where he could be treated for a heroin addiction.

But ever since he went through a 28-day program funded by the state last March, Alonardo said he has been sober. Now, he is hoping the budget will allocate more money to combat substance abuse.

The House budget plan would not extend the substance abuse benefit to the traditional Medicaid population and would reduce Hassan’s proposed funding level for the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery.

Alonardo, along with many others at the hearing, wore a neon-green shirt with the number 321 printed on the front. It’s the number of overdose deaths in New Hampshire last year.

“I knew some of them personally,” Alonardo said. “I very likely could have been one of them if I didn’t have the opportunity the state afforded me.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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