Senate opens hearings on state budget

May 7, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire senators crafting a two-year state budget on Tuesday heard personal pleas to include increased funding for education and programs that benefit people with disabilities and mental illness.

Hundreds of people attended the first of two public hearings on the budget being hosted by the Senate Finance Committee. Many of those who spoke as the hearing got underway urged members to go along with education funding provisions included in the budget passed by the House last month. The House proposal would restore so-called stabilization grants to schools and adjust the formula used to distribute education money to benefit towns and cities with lower property values and a larger percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That would amount to about an increase of $160 million in state aid over two years and would be paid for largely by extending the 5% interest and dividends tax to cover capital gains.

Frank Sprague, chairman of the Claremont school board and a former school administrator, said decreases in the stabilization grants has made it impossible for his district to hire and retain teachers, and that property taxpayers are at a breaking point when it comes to paying for schools. He urged lawmakers to find the courage to stand up to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s possible veto and to “face the fact that additional sources of revenue must be found.”

“Public schools are the canary in the coal mine for New Hampshire communities,” he said. “If life support for schools is cut off, the economic health of the entire community is thereby compromised.”

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier delivered an equally dire warning. Without restoration of the stabilization grants, the state’s struggling northernmost city will have to eliminate two police officer positions, two firefighters and a public works employee, he said.

“We’re at the point now where we are going to collapse,” he said.

Fellow Berlin resident Ellen Tavino urged senators to fund peer support organizations in the North Country, which she called “the frozen chosen.” She described her struggles with severe and persistent mental illness, and said the peer support center she visits has changed her life.

“I watched and learned, then took my first steps toward what I wanted to be in my life,” she said.

Former state Rep. Amelia Keane also spoke up about education, but turned the focus to college affordability. She urged senators to increase funding for the state university system, noting that New Hampshire’s college graduates carry the nation’s highest debt load upon graduation. Her own degree took eight years to complete, she said, because she took time away to join the Army reserves to pay for school. Still, she graduated with more than $30,000 in debt.

“Just about all my friends have left the state, and all the ones still here are thinking about leaving,” said Keane, executive director of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. “The best way to attract a strong vibrant work force is to lower the cost of tuition in the state.”

Parish Mahoney, a recent graduate of Merrimack Valley High School, spoke to the committee from his wheelchair. He advocated for funding for a Granite State Independent Living program called IMPACCT that helps young people with disabilities transition from school to college or work.

“IMPACCT builds so many options for kids who think they’ve reached their limit,” he said. “They make it possible for us to go out in the community to make a difference.”