N.H. business leaders diverge on budget veto

  • Over a hundred health care workers, patients and executives packed into a Legislative Office Building hearing room to speak on health care funding priorities. ETHAN DEWITT / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/1/2019 7:29:55 PM
Modified: 8/1/2019 7:29:43 PM

Andrew Curland has heard all the arguments for lowering business taxes and tackling energy costs – and he agrees with them.

But to Curland, the CEO of Vitex Extrusion in Franklin, the biggest barrier to economic growth in New Hampshire has been slowly brewing for years.

“Right now, (it’s) not having labor,” he said. “Without labor, taxes, energy costs, it doesn’t matter. You can’t make the product without labor.”

Curland spoke to Gov. Chris Sununu on Friday at a roundtable of more than 20 corporate leaders organized by the Business and Industry Association in Concord – many speaking in support of Sununu’s budget veto in June.

The meeting at the association’s headquarters was another in a cascade of recent events by Democrats and Republicans in Concord to underscore the stakes for the budget as negotiations inch forward. Across the street at the Legislative Office Building, over a hundred health care workers, patients and executives packed into a hearing room to speak on health care funding priorities – many opposed to the June veto.

That veto was issued by Sununu in protest of Democrats’ plan to raise the state’s business profits tax. With Sununu in the room at the BIA meeting, several business leaders praised the governor, arguing for even lower business taxes.

But many also pointed to other factors standing in the way of business growth. And one issue rose above all: labor.

For Curland, that means a phalanx of factors weighing down New Hampshire’s workforce: from low graduation rates, to the opioid epidemic, to low youth retention, to high housing costs.

At the dueling event, health care workers raised a different spectre: struggling clinics and mounting shortages of medical professionals. Since 2006, many providers have not seen increases to the Medicaid reimbursement rate, which pays for services to low-income populations.

That rate is set by the state; 50% of it is matched by the federal government, but New Hampshire lawmakers have discretion over how high to set it. New Hampshire has some of the lowest rates in the country.

Presenters said the consequences of those low rates have been felt by every corner of the system.

“Rate increases – the ones that have been put in place, frankly don’t keep up with inflation and the rising cost of doing business,” said Jeff Dickinson, advocacy director at Granite State Independent Living, which provides home health aides to seniors and people with disabilities. Low rates equal low salaries for health care workers, which means difficulty competing against easier professions like fast-food jobs.

Other stakeholders pointed to their own plights since the budget stalemate. Representatives for Planned Parenthood objected to the cancellation of state funds that could have helped avert funding shortfalls imposed by a new rule from the Trump administration that restricts funding to certain providers of abortion services.

Rebecca Whitley, children’s behavioral health policy director at the advocacy group New Futures, lamented the pause in funding for case management services for children’s mental and behavioral health. That includes money to allow for mobile crisis units to help address incidents at all hours of the day and avoid emergency room placements.

Under an agreement reached in June, state leaders have until Sept. 30 to agree to a budget deal or extend a temporary funding measure another few months.

In an email to senators and representatives Thursday, state treasurer Bill Dwyer warned that ratings agencies are keeping an eye on the state as its negotiations move along.

After a budget veto in Vermont last year, agencies downgraded that state’s rating temporarily.

But Dwyer stayed cautious. “I would not want to speculate regarding whether, when, or what type of rating actions are at risk,” he said.

And separate reports from Moody’s and S&P have said New Hampshire’s budget situation is less alarming due to high reserves of surplus money built up.

How to spend that surplus will likely divide legislators until well past August.

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