[Editor’s Note: The issues outlined in this editorial have particular relevance to the state’s lake communities. Will the new majority in Concord increase funding for milfoil control, water safety and environmental protection of state lakes while under pressure to cut all spending? Or will even more costs be forced on towns like Ossipee and Freedom? This article begins the discussion].
Concord — November 14, 2010 — At dusk, not long ago, with the State House in view, a woman and two young children tramped across a field along the Merrimack River and headed into the woods. They were carrying sleeping bags.
The social safety net has been unraveling for years, but lawmakers in the next session of the Legislature could tear gaping holes in it to balance the budget. This winter, New Hampshire will get only half the federal money it received last year to help the poor heat their homes. The mental health system is emaciated. Food pantry supplies are inadequate. The local waiting list for low-income housing is 600 applicants long. Meanwhile, the state faces a general fund budget deficit of nearly $700 million, by one reliable estimate.
Gov. John Lynch, who asked state department heads to prepare a budget 5 percent lower than their current one for the next biennium, believes that he can balance the books without making draconian cuts. If the economy picks up, he may be right. But for the first time as governor, Lynch won’t be in the driver’s seat. Republicans in the House and Senate enjoy a veto-proof majority. Many of them want not just to cut spending but also to lower taxes – which means cutting spending even more. There is no desire on the part of the governor, or Republicans, to raise more revenue.
Most state agencies have suffered from years of budget cuts. Finding efficiencies and cutting waste won’t begin to be enough to balance the budget. Some programs can’t be eliminated without losing federal funds that match or multiply the state’s contribution. So unless revenue is increased, whole programs or agencies may have to go. Every cut will have consequences for those in need of services. But those needs will not disappear – the responsibility for meeting them will simply be downshifted.
It’s time for New Hampshire lawmakers and citizens to decide what they want their government to be and do. If they are not willing to pay to have all they want, they must put their priorities in order. Where do they rank things like public safety, good roads, environmental quality, public education and social services? How much will reduced spending reduce the state’s quality of life?
Republicans have mentioned a wealth of potential cuts. They include making state employees pay a bigger share of their pension costs and requiring them to work longer to receive full benefits; postponing or eliminating a scheduled $140 million increase in state education funding and amending the Constitution to allow state education aid to go only to needy communities; and reducing state support for higher education.
Health and Human Services, the state’s biggest agency, is once again a target. There is talk of seeking a federal waiver to make it harder for needy residents to qualify for Medicaid. That means a reduction in services and greater pressure on local welfare offices, jails, prisons, police departments, hospitals, churches and local taxpayers.
Republican lawmakers have a new crop of ideologues and firebrands in their ranks. They will be under great pressure to make cuts that diminish the quality of life for those receiving state help and shift more of the cost of governing to property taxpayers. Before cheering state budget cuts, those taxpayers should consider what it will mean for them.