House buget hearing draws advocates for social service

CONCORD — Advocates for addiction support programs, the homeless, domestic violence prevention and mental health appealed to lawmakers for sustained or increased funding, as the House Finance Committee began hearings Thursday on its version of the spending plan for the next biennium.

“The future prosperity of our state depends on our ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation of our citizens,” said Effie Malley, director of the N.H. Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative. “We need to make sure our focus remains on our most vulnerable, our children and youth.”

Malley sounded a theme consistent with many of the speakers advocating for the social service programs, warning that failure to fund support programs adequately only leads to higher expense to the state and social costs that span generations.

Linda Paquette, executive director of the New Futures drug prevention program, urged committee members to support the provisions of the budget that reauthorizes Medicaid expansion in the state, particularly the requirement for substance abuse benefits in approved health plans.

She also called for increased funding to the Governors Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Treatment and Recovery, citing a statewide epidemic of opioid addiction resulting in a record-breaking number of overdose deaths.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “Your constituents are demanding that we address this problem.”

Lawmakers heard emotional, sometimes tearful, testimony from the parents of children with disabilities, people in recovery from addiction, people with disabilities and the father of a young woman from Penacook who was shot and killed by her husband in front of her two daughters.

Michael Renkert, whose daughter died in a domestic violence homicide in June 2011, said increasing funds for domestic violence prevention “can be a matter of life or death.”

“It is absolutely shameful that New Hampshire is looking to spend only $60,000 in state funds next year in order to prevent the loss of more lives,” he said.

The hallway leading to a packed Representatives Hall was crowded with supporters of expanded Medicaid and recovery programs, sporting buttons, placards and signs calling for reauthorization of the New Hampshire Health Protection Program.

Greg Moore, state director for the conservative policy group Americans for Prosperity, testified against tax and fee increases proposed by Gov. Maggie Hassan in her version of the budget.

“We’ve passed two consecutive budgets without increasing taxes and fees, which has helped to grow our economy,” he said. “This budget does not keep that streak alive and raises a number of taxes and fees.”

Moore said extending the business profits tax to small business owners “would be a huge step backwards for our economy,” as would an increase in the cigarette tax and the auto registration fee.

“Another increase in the cigarette tax will make New Hampshire less competitive in terms of cross border sales,” he said.

Representatives of grocers and convenience stores spoke against a proposed increase in the tobacco tax by 21 cents a pack and a plan to tax e-cigarettes, which would make New Hampshire the only state in New England to tax the nicotine vapor products.