Senators urged to prioritize health care, public education in state budget

Nearly 220 signed up to testify

People hold signs in front of the State House

Members of the People’s Budget Campaign gather outside of the State House in advance of a Senate Finance Committee hearing, arguing for a budget that includes more funding for schools and health care services. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated May 5, 2021 at 8 a.m.

Developmental disability advocates, school representatives, health care leaders, and residents took to a public microphone Tuesday to argue for specific priorities in the New Hampshire budget, in a marathon hearing that highlighted broad concerns with the state’s funding models.  

During a nine-hour virtual listening session that ended around 10:30 p.m., advocates pressed the Senate Finance Committee for additional funding for mental health services, schools, child care programs, and dental care, and argued against efforts to cut those areas. Speakers also asked senators to remove a House restriction on family care funding and a ban on teaching “divisive topics.”

Nearly 220 people signed up to testify. Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican and the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, made a list of each speaker’s name. Daniels’ said his list ran 20 pages.

Many of those who testified brought personal perspectives.

“I have a family member who is burdened with mental illness,” said Arthur Gardner of Hanover. “I have direct experience with the serious consequences of the emergency room boarding crisis. . . . With every good motivation, a system designed to protect and cure has had a harmful effect, rather than a helpful effect.”

The hearing came as New Hampshire’s two-year budget – which covers the period between July 2021 and June 2023 – enters its last stretch of tinkering in the Senate before a final round of negotiations with the House.

The Senate Finance Committee has until the end of May to amend the budget the House sent over in April. The full Senate must vote on that budget by June 3.

Financially, the budget proposals from Gov. Chris Sununu and the House have been similar. The House budget included $52.2 million less in spending than the governor’s proposal – a difference of less than a percentage point, according to an analysis by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a right-leaning think tank.

But on policy matters, the House and the governor’s budget proposals have notably clashed. The House removed the governor’s paid family leave plan as well as the long-running plan to build a psychiatric hospital and a college debt forgiveness plan – all priorities Sununu has highlighted for years.

And the House has added a number of provisions that could be non-starters, from a ban on racially “divisive concepts” being taught in schools and workplace anti-bias trainings to a strict rule on reproductive health care funding that could jeopardize state support of Planned Parenthood and two other reproductive health care clinics that perform abortions. 

Sununu has accused the House budget process of going “completely off the rails” and has publicly called for the Senate to fix it.

On Tuesday, with all eyes on the Senate, advocates across the political spectrum made their cases.

Divisive concepts bill

Among the biggest topics of discussion Tuesday was House Bill 544, the bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” that House lawmakers added to the budget. 

Those divisive concepts include any instruction that suggests race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex, or that the state of New Hampshire or the United States is inherently racist or sexist.

The bill, a number of hearing attendees argued Tuesday, would smother the ability of schools and other organizations to teach the concepts of white supremacy and structural racism – and to attempt to combat racial injustices and biases moving forward. 

School representatives expressed strong opposition.

“(It) would harm Manchester students, your largest and most diverse community in the state,” said Leslie Want, vice chair of Manchester’s school board. 

Christopher Becker, a high school social studies teacher at the Leaf Charter School in Alstead, said the bill was antithetical to accurate and nuanced instruction. And he argued it would set back progress made by teachers and advocates to consider new vantage points in American history that had previously been minimized.

“The wording of the bill makes it seem like teachers are teaching students to hate others, to regard people of particular races and genders as inferior, simply because these teachers are bringing in perspectives that previously were not given merit and are directly challenging long held but erroneous cultural and historical beliefs,” Becker said. 

Non-educational organizations weighed in, too. Matthew Houde, vice president of government relations at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said the bill would dismantle progress on anti-bias training at the hospital.

Under the bill’s language, the prohibition on teaching divisive concepts would extend to any corporation or business that has entered into a contract with the state of New Hampshire. 

“As a contractor with the state, we’re concerned that our efforts to advance the important work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging would be undermined by the limitations imposed (by the bill),” Houde said. 

And other organizations pointed to federal requirements that could create a conflict. Kristine Stoddard, director of public policy at the Bi-State Primary Care Association, said that avoiding racial bias training and instruction could put the centers it represents in a tough legal area.

“Federally qualified health centers, also known as community health centers, are required by federal statute to provide culturally competent care,” Stoddard said. “The language in Section 330 would make a health center have to choose between participating as a FQHC or contracting with the state to provide necessary health care services.”

School funding

Some advocates for public schools used Tuesday’s hearing to raise concerns about the budget’s school funding formula, which they said didn’t rise to the unique financial challenges of COVID-19.

In Manchester, for instance, a precipitous drop in school enrollment during the COVID school year is set to cost the district $5.2 million in state adequacy grants, said Want, of Manchester’s school board. 

When combined with this year’s statewide increases to the retirement contribution rate, the city is $7.2 million behind what it anticipated – a major financial blow, Want said.

Schools have said that the temporary drop in enrollments this school year has distorted New Hampshire’s funding formula. To counter that, they’ve urged state budget writers to center the formula for next year’s funding around the 2019-2020 enrollment, which they say is a more accurate picture of school attendance this September. 

The Senate has expressed support for making that adjustment, but House lawmakers did not include it in their version of the budget last month. 

“Please pass a budget … so that the children of Manchester who have already suffered enough during this pandemic can be given the opportunity to recover from these learning losses experienced during a difficult year-and-a-half,” Want said. 

Want referenced a recent study by the National Education Association that found that New Hampshire spends the lowest proportional share of state funding in the country, at 31.4 percent. 

In contrast, New Hampshire’s percentage of school funding paid for by local taxes – 63.7 percent – is the highest of all 50 states. 

Other hearing attendees raised concerns about a proposed voucher-like school funding program that would allow parents to remove their child from a public school and take that school’s per-pupil funding amount with them to use for private school tuition. 

This year, the Republican House chose to hold off on passing a bill to establish that program, known as the education freedom accounts program. But Senate Republicans have expressed an interest in adding it into the budget as they finalize it this month. 

Peter Miller of Durham argued that the education freedom account program included insufficient accountability measures to track where the public dollars were being spent.

And he said that the program should be passed as its own bill and not included in the budget.

Senate Bill 130 is a major policy initiative, establishing the most expansive school voucher program in the United States,” Miller said, referring to the original bill number for the program. “It should be debated and considered on its own merits, not hidden in the state budget.”

Funding for victims of sexual violence

Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, asked lawmakers to keep the $1.26 million in the budget that has been allocated for the coalition’s 12 community-based crisis centers.

Schollett said that the need for their programs has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Calls to their crisis hotlines went up by 63 percent in the first seven months of the pandemic, with the hotline fielding around 100,000 calls.

While the coalition’s crisis centers were able to provide free services to 30,000 victims, in that same time, the centers had to turn away 1,600 adults and 740 children who were seeking emergency shelter.

 “The essential role that our crisis centers play in responding to trauma has become increasingly apparent during this pandemic,” Schollett said. “Imagine the terror of being asked to shelter at home with a person who is raping and battering regularly.”

Many of the coalition’s services have changed during the pandemic, from sheltering victims in hotels to hosting focus and support groups on Zoom.

State assistance for child care 

Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning New Hampshire, urged the Senate Finance Committee to increase funding for employment-related child care programs. Currently, the budget includes only $26 million for the program, down from the $34 million that is currently allocated to that line item.

Cowell said funding this program allows families who qualify based on their income to receive assistance so they can pay for child care and keep working.

“This is that one piece of state assistance that can really help families to move ahead,” Cowell said.

Christina Darling, a single mother and resident of Nashua, testified about how the child care scholarship program has helped her family. She opposed the budget because it doesn’t fully fund the program that made it possible for her to enroll her two young sons in child care so that she could keep working. 

“It was not my intention or desire to need to receive state assistance to survive,” Darling said. “Yet even with my full-time job where I provide essential services and resources to families, and affordable housing in a perfect month where no bills go over and my food cost stays down and I work every single hour presented to me, I can walk away with $75 a month to put into my savings.”

“If I didn’t have access to that scholarship I’d be back to juggling my bills, trying to explain to the boys why we don’t have power when all of our neighbors do,” Darling said. 

The current budget includes a 20 percent cut to the program, decreasing its funding by $15.2 million over the biennium. But while demand for the program has been down in the past year, Cowell said it is likely to increase in the future with more low-income families who could potentially qualify when they do go back to work. People who are looking for work can use the program as well, now that the governor has reinstated the job-search requirement for unemployment.  

Family Planning

Several people asked senators to eliminate the House’s new restriction on family planning funding. It would withhold state money from family planning clinics that do not physically and financially separate their routine medical care from abortion services. State money does not pay for abortion care, and the three providers that perform abortions say they already separate out abortion expenses.

Those providers – Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center – say the restriction is a veiled attempt to eliminate abortion services in New Hampshire.

Alyssa Antman of Concord described the sensitive and reassuring care she received during two difficult and painful visits to the Equality Health Center in Concord for a problem with birth control medication.  She said the restriction would put thousands of women at risk of losing access to life-saving health care. 

“We should all be able to agree that funding community services such as cancer screenings and birth control is good for the health of our communities and the overall economy. We should be working on expanding access to the services, not stripping them away.”

Kristine Stoddard, policy director at Bi-State Primary Care, asked senators to add $1.2 million to the budget to replace federal family planning dollars that Donald Trump’s “gag rule” has withheld from providers who counseled women and families on abortion. The state’s family planning centers opted to forgo the money rather than cease discussion of abortion with patients. 

President Joe Biden has proposed removing the rule, but family planning providers are anticipating a gap in funding before the federal money is once again available. 

The People’s Budget

Several people testified against the budget, proposing that it be replaced by “The People’s Budget,” which was drafted by a coalition of organizations. Members of the People’s Budget Campaign gathered outside of the State House in advance of the hearing with signs that read, “We demand transparency” and “This bill deserves an F.”

 “We deserve better,” said Maggie Fogarty of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that works for peace and social justice. “The People’s Budget coalition came together to help inspire us to dream bigger and to demand better when it comes to our state budget, that sadly, our imagination collectively has been anemic,” Fogarty said.

Those demands include affordable housing for everyone, high-quality education, good health care for all, mental health care, clean air and water, and a $15 minimum wage, among other issues. The coalition sent a letter to lawmakers detailing its ideas for a better budget. 

Reverend John Gregory of the American Congregational Church also testified in opposition to the budget. He proposed the People’s Budget as an alternative that lawmakers should adopt. Gregory also said the business profits and enterprise tax cuts would primarily benefit 76 large multinational corporations.

“The budget bails out the wealthiest, while adding burden to struggling Granite Staters,” Gregory said. “This is not the hallmark of a balanced, healthy budget.” He advocated for “progressive taxation.”

The coalition is made up of around 20 organizations that are advocating for eight “pillars of justice,” according to a news release. Participating organizations include the New Hampshire Poor People’s Campaign, Voices of Faith, and the Kent Street Coalition, among others.

Medicaid funding for dental care

In 2019, the Legislature passed legislation allowing the expansion of Medicaid to include dental benefits. Gov. Sununu signed the bill, saying it would be the first time the state provided quality routine dental care to adults with disabilities and others covered by Medicaid.

But it’s never been funded. Several parents of children with disabilities pleaded Tuesday with senators to do so. 

“The data is clear,” said Lisa Beaudoin, executive director of ABLE NH. “People with poor oral health struggle to secure employment. People with disabilities already face discrimination in our society, from potential employers who believe the myth that people with disabilities are not quite worthwhile employees. Which employer is going to hire a person with a disability whose mouth is full of decay and in periods of pain?”

Jennifer Bertrand of Mont Vernon said with support from the state Department of Developmental Services, her 21-year-old daughter has been able to remain at home and attend her local high school, rather than be institutionalized. She said Medicaid coverage for her dental care is no less important. “Chloe, like other adult individuals with developmental disabilities, need access to dental to a dental benefit to maintain their oral health so that they can continue to be productive, stay healthy, and work,” she said.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.