Capital Beat: Health, social service backers silent on Hassan budget veto threat

Last modified: 7/14/2015 6:54:30 PM
Some show up in neon green shirts. Others pray outside legislative chambers. Many hold press conferences.

They are advocates for the elderly, people with mental illness, substance abuse services and a slew of other health and social programs. And often they have been the loudest voice in the ongoing state budget process.

But since Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan threatened to veto the two-year budget plan last week, those advocates have publicly stayed silent.

Some say, privately, they feel caught in a bind.

While the Republican-crafted budget does not meet all of Hassan’s funding recommendations, it does restore many of the House’s deep cuts to health and social services. The budget doesn’t fund Medicaid expansion, but it gives money back to programs like Meals on Wheels and ServiceLink, and it offers a rate increase to home health care providers, the first in years.

Hassan is mostly concerned about Republican-backed business tax cuts, which she says will blow a hole in this and future budgets.

But the advocates fear a veto could jeopardize those small advances. They are worried about the uncertainty a veto would create.

“This is really, from our perspective, the best budget we’ve seen in years,” said Gina Balkus, an advocate for home health agencies. “We hope our needs don’t get lost in the political fray that results from a veto.”

The current state budget expires June 30. Without a set spending plan in place, many health and social service providers won’t know how much money they get or whether their programs could again be on the chopping block.

“The uncertainty that it creates is the biggest problem,” said Jeff Dickinson, Advocacy Director for Granite State Independent Living.

Lawmakers are already crafting a continuing resolution that would keep government open if Hassan vetoes the budget and lawmakers need to negotiate a new compromise. While Republicans have said they are drafting a six-month resolution – giving negotiators until January to hammer out a deal – they have yet to give specifics about the level of funding.

One option could be simply funding government services at the current level. For programs set to see an increase under the budget plan, that means they would get less money July 1 than they expected.

That’s a concerning prospect for substance abuse advocates.

The proposal would nearly double the money in a key fund that covers treatment, recovery and prevention services – giving it $6.7 million over two years. Although that’s $3 million less than Hassan proposed, it is much more than what the fund gets now, roughly $3.6 million.

At this point, the funding level July 1 is anyone’s guess.

“In light of our opiate crisis in this state, there is a very significant need to get the dollars out quickly,” said Linda Saunders Paquette, executive director of New Futures. “As important as it is to get services to the community as quickly as possible, there has to be the revenue to pay for them.”

Hassan is concerned about revenue as well. She says the business tax cuts are fiscally irresponsible, unpaid for and would cost the state $90 million in future revenue, which would jeopardize funding for key services.

Last week, Hassan met privately with a group of roughly 30 advocates to reiterate her intension to veto the budget and explain her reasoning.

It remains to be seen if advocates will rally behind the message.

Representatives from AARP and Community Support Network, which supports programs for people with developmental disabilities, wouldn’t say outright whether they support the veto plan or not.

“The veto has many components,” said Todd Fahey, State Director of AARP New Hampshire, which advocated funding Meals on Wheels and ServiceLink. “We were not dealing with any of the revenue sides that will factor into (Hassan’s) veto position.”

“We have a lot to process,” said CSNI’s Sarah Aiken. “Our goal, as always, is to fully fund people who experience developmental disability.”

The House and Senate still need to approve the budget this week before they can send it to Hassan’s desk. Once it gets there, she has five days to take action.

While many advocates haven’t carved out a strong public stance yet, in the case of a veto and ensuing partisan showdown, their voices could put pressure on lawmakers to strike a deal. So far, neither Republicans nor Democrats have shown a willingness to budge. And the usually vocal group of advocates is reluctant, right now, to weigh in.

Looking far ahead

As talk of a budget veto fires up, so does speculation about 2016.

Republican Senate President Chuck Morse started it last week, saying if Hassan vetoes the budget it’s because of narrow special interests and her ambition for higher office. Some Democratic lawmakers, for their part, have said they think Republicans are trying to push Hassan toward a veto to muddy her 2016 plans.

Some speculate Hassan will challenge Republican Kelly Ayotte for her U.S. Senate seat in 2016.

But Hassan has consistently said she won’t make a decision about 2016 until after the budget process wraps up. In the case of a budget veto, that could potentially be as late as January. If she does decide to run against Ayotte, it would give her less than one year to campaign against an incumbent.

If the budget debates draws out, would Hassan put her potential political plans on hold until it’s complete, whenever that is?

“I am not thinking about that right now,” Hassan told reporters last week. “I will be working every day, for as long as it takes, to get a fiscally responsible, balanced budget.”

RGGI

After months of partisan politicking, it looks like not much will change after all when it comes to New Hampshire and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Republican representatives filed a bill at the start of this session to pull New Hampshire out of the regional pact, a cap-and-trade program meant to curb carbon emissions. Fossil fuel-burning power plants purchase a RGGI-issued allowance for every ton of carbon dioxide that they emit. New Hampshire will get roughly $18.6 million from the auction this year, experts predict.

That repeal bill quickly went south and the conversation turned to how the state will use its RGGI revenue. The House voted to send all RGGI auction money back to ratepayers, which didn’t fly in the Senate. Senators opted to send more money to energy efficiency programs. Ultimately, negotiators met last week to reconcile the different bills and were unable to reach agreement. That means the program will remain as is, with roughly one fifth of the state’s share of auction proceeds going to energy efficiency and the remainder sent back to ratepayers as rebates. Until next time, lawmakers.



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




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