On June 29, Gov. John Lynch signed the state’s budget for the next two years.
The budget delivered to him by the Legislature is more transparent than prior budgets and represents our state’s values and priorities by funding our needs without creating new revenue sources.
Building the budget is truly an awesome task, requiring hard work, accurate information and an open process. The Senate and House Finance Committee members and staff distinguished themselves on all fronts, although we were hampered by outdated systems that make it impossible for us to get up-to-date information on expenditures and revenues. We addressed this problem by investing in a new computer system, as well as the staff to implement it, so that we can have up-to-date information for our next budget cycle. We also worked hard to ensure that the budget reflected our constituents’ values and priorities, knowing that achieving this is impossible if we don’t first protect and strengthen the state’s fiscal health.
As a result, we added $20 million to the state’s rainy day fund and provided for a $7 million surplus. We also shored up the highway fund with $13.5 million and replenished the welfare reserve fund with $8.5 million should a future economic downturn force more families to turn to the state for financial assistance.
Our capital and operating budgets also address public safety and infrastructure issues. We have increased funding for dam maintenance and repair, funded initial repairs to the Hampton sea wall, and have provided additional river gauges to help the state monitor river levels in a more timely and accurate way. We have also funded six new state trooper positions and invested in our roads and bridges.
Funding for our public schools increased by almost $100 million, and we were able to provide emergency funding to three state charter schools, which are no longer eligible for federal start up grants, including the Seacoast Charter School. I am also very pleased that we were able to secure more than $6 million to renovate the Seacoast School of Technology.
The budget also provides health insurance for 10,000 more children through the Healthy Kids program and directs more money for services to the mentally ill, developmentally disabled and elderly who want to remain in their homes.
We also increased funding for critical alcohol and drug prevention programs.
We restored funding to LCHIP (Land and Community Heritage Investment Program), which provides grants to communities to preserve open space and historic buildings. At the same time, we allotted $800,000 to help finance affordable housing for families.
Our efforts have not gone without criticism — I doubt any budget does. Our decision to streamline the way the state and counties share certain expenses is controversial, although it will not change the amount of money any county receives for three years, so that we can continue to work with the counties to resolve a complex set of issues.
Others are concerned that the total price tag — $10.3 billion (about $3 billion of which is state dollars) — represents a significant increase over the last budget. As is always the case, it’s critically important to understand the story behind the numbers. Eighty-three percent of the increase in state funding represents increases in nondiscretionary expenses, such as state employee step increases that were negotiated years ago. Moreover, some of the increase simply represents our commitment to transparent budgeting — we discouraged chronic under-budgeting that made spending look lean but results in agencies coming back for supplemental funds.
We’re protecting public safety, investing in infrastructure and education and addressing the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, while setting the state on firmer financial footing for the future. I think the budget represents New Hampshire at its best.
Maggie Hassan is a state senator for District 23, comprised of East Kingston, Exeter, Kensington, Kingston, Newfields, Newmarket, Newton, Seabrook, South Hampton, Stratham.