The Senate Finance Committee was urged by many to adopt the $15.9 billion budget the House sent it. (Beatrice Burack | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Two years ago, the public found much to criticize in the state budget. During a nine-hour public hearing in May 2021, the Senate Finance Committee heard a great deal about the budget’s abortion ban, restriction on teaching “divisive concepts,” and the elimination of Medicaid dental benefits.
If this year’s public hearing is an indication of what’s to come, don’t expect the same divisions.
Over several hours Tuesday, the public mostly urged the Senate Finance Committee to support the $15.9 billion budget the House sent it. Here’s why:
It reduces taxes while increasing state spending enough to give state workers a 10 percent raise in the first year; fixes a costly retirement glitch for law enforcement and firefighters; boosts state Medicaid payments to health providers; and puts $30 million into affordable housing.
Second, the House stripped some of Gov. Chris Sununu’s most polarizing proposals from the budget, including the elimination of more than 30 professional licenses and a significant expansion of the “education freedom accounts” program.
Of the hundreds of proposed expenses in the state budget, which must be passed by June, a few dominated the hearing Tuesday, most tied to workforce shortages.
Medicaid reimbursement rates
The House included $132 million over two years for Medicaid rate increases, significantly more than the $27 million Sununu proposed.
All providers except for hospitals would get a 3 percent increase, and some would see additional increases. Hospitals asked that their additional money be given to other organizations whose services allow people to get care at home or in long-term settings.
The Senate Finance Committee heard from several older Granite Staters and those with disabilities who rely on Medicaid-funded services to live at home rather than in a nursing home or other institution through the Choices for Independence program.
They said they’d like to see those increases at least maintained and increased if possible.
At the state’s current reimbursement rate providers say they can’t pay workers more than $13 an hour, less than what retail and fast-food chains are offering. It’s become so hard to recruit and hold onto workers, providers said they are turning away people who are eligible for services or giving them fewer hours of care than they qualify for.
“New Hampshire has taken pride in the words Live Free or Die,” Ashley Chaney of Visiting Nurse Home Care and Hospice in Carroll County, told the committee. “Let’s not confuse this with live free, die alone at home on your own.”
Bob Dunn, director of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, said low Medicaid payments have made it so hard to recruit staff that Catholic Charities has closed 80 of the 380 beds it manages across six nursing homes because it can’t find workers.
Dunn said the organization is losing $8 million to $10 million a year because Medicaid payments aren’t keeping pace with expenses.
State troopers, local law enforcement, and firefighters urged the committee to retain the $50 million the House included to refund lost retirement pay for nearly 1,800 of their peers.
That group saw their benefits reduced under a 2011 change to the New Hampshire Retirement System. This would adjust the start date of those changes and entitle them to a refund of lost retirement pay over the next 10 years.
Frank Campo, president of the New Hampshire Troopers Association, said an August poll showed that 72 percent of respondents said they were considering leaving law enforcement for the public sector. He and Trooper Joshua Quigley, also with the association, said reimbursement of unpaid retirement pay would help.
Quigley said the state police are struggling with unprecedented retention challenges and are down 20 percent of its workforce. “This piece would encourage people to stay until retirement,” he said.
Nashua police Sgt. John Cinelli, treasurer of the New Hampshire Police Association, said those kinds of vacancies jeopardize public safety.
“I see this problem every day. I hear about it everywhere I go,” he told the committee. “It is real and serious. This isn’t just about good pay, and having a good retirement program. It’s about the safety of our citizens.”
Child care shortages
Workforce shortages continue to plague child care providers as well.
Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning NH, told the committee that losing a single teacher could leave eight children and their families without child care. That, in turn, becomes a problem for other employers.
“When child care teachers show up, it allows many other people in other industries to show up to work as well,” she said. “We call it the workforce behind the workforce.”
Airole Warden, project manager at the Coos County Director Network, said she’s fielded calls from police chiefs and a fire department looking for child care for potential hires. In one case, two candidates needed child care, she said, a challenge in northern New Hampshire where two centers have recently closed.
While some asked that funding for all public education be increased, some speakers focused on the state’s support for public charter schools.
Rep. Maureen Mooney, a Merrimack Republican, urged committee members to support her efforts to increase per-pupil funding for charter schools from $7,300 to $9,000.
Kim LaValley of The New Hampshire Charter School Foundation echoed that.
“We absolutely need an increase to be able to hire people,” she told the committee. “We need to be able to provide the appropriate tools and materials to give students the appropriate care that they need.”
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