Published Date: Friday, 15 May 2015 08:33
The New Hampshire Senate held more than five hours of budget hearings on Wednesday, May 6. For several hours I listened to one citizen after another plead for funding for a host of our state’s needs. Through it all there was a nagging feeling that something was missing.
My heart ached for a mother who lost one child to cancer last year and was losing another to the ravages of mental illness as she pled for adequate funding for mental health.
Still there was something missing.
Representatives Hall was filled to capacity as was the House gallery, the ante-room, and the corridor outside. Some attendees were escorted to the State House cafeteria to wait for room to open up in the House chamber. More than 1,000 citizens are estimated to have turned out for the hearing. Approximately 400 signed up to testify on the House-passed budget. Others signed in favor or in opposition. Still others just came to bear witness.
Yet, there was something missing.
One mother said, “I come here every two years to say the same things. We shouldn’t have to beg you for support year after year.” Like so many parents of developmentally disabled children, she beseeched the committee to reinstate the thin safety net that provides for someone to care for her child while she works each day. These parents pay property and other taxes and save the state tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars by not turning these adult children over to state care.
But, there was something missing.
Folks from chambers of commerce and tourism-related businesses asked for restoration of state tourism promotional dollars, noting a nine-to-one return on every dollar invested in promoting New Hampshire’s tourism, an industry accounting for more than 34 million visits and $4.5 billion in spending.
There were students from New Hampshire colleges, including the student president of Keene State College who has seen friends drop out due to tuition costs and escalating debt. “I love New Hampshire. I want to stay here and contribute, but my college debt and the lack of affordability of living here will likely result in my leaving when I graduate.” He won’t be alone as he joins an alarming number of our young people abandoning New Hampshire for more hospitable climes.
Many sported neon green T-shirts with the chalk outline of a body on the front bearing the number 321, the number of those who had died in the past year from drug over-doses. They entreated the Committee to restore funding for drug and alcohol treatment and prevention to save lives. They noted New Hampshire is now experiencing the worst opioid crisis of its history.
Dozens of seniors asked the Committee to save ServiceLink, a coordinating agency for seniors, and to restore funding for Meals on Wheels. There are very practical and economic reasons for maintaining adequate services to allow seniors to stay in their homes. If cuts result in the need for nursing home care, we currently could not accommodate them within the existing county nursing home structures.
Then, suddenly amid the supplications for prudent investments in New Hampshire’s economy, in educating and retaining our young people, and in crafting a budget that demonstrates our moral priorities, I realized what was missing. In all the hours of testimony, I had not heard one — not one — who stood up and asked for cuts to the budget, not one who implored the committee to tighten our collective belt and eliminate any of the programs being discussed. Not one person demanded fee and tax cuts. Even a North Country executive councilor, known for advocating fiscal belt tightening, pleaded with the committee to restore funding for economic development and services needed by his constituents.
Of the more than 800 signatures on sign-in sheets, 10 were in favor of the budget and the remainder in opposition. Some of the 10 may have been an error as two individuals indicated they were homeless (funds for homeless shelters have also been cut). Even if we accept every one of those 10 as being in favor of the budget, that is 1.2 percent of the citizens present at the hearings.
One has to ask where the outcry to slash these programs comes from. As one woman said to the Senate committee, “We heard loud and clear from the House: You don’t matter to us, your children don’t matter to us. Will you tell us the same thing?”
Is that really what we want to tell the citizens of our state — the vulnerable, our students, seniors, tourism businesses, the homeless — you don’t matter to us. Is that truly the best we can do?
Jackie Cilley is a New Hampshire State Representative and a native of Berlin.