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Posts Tagged ‘state budget; public sector workers’

Published June 20, 2011 in Concord Monitor (http://www.concordmonitor.com/article/263820/state-facing-compassion-deficit)



Budget fails the common-sense test

New Hampshire legislators may have produced a balanced budget, but they have left the state with deficits in other areas that will be harder to close than a fiscal gap.

Starting from Gov. John Lynch’s budget, which cut state spending by 5 percent, the House and Senate cut deeper. By the time they were done, state spending levels were cut by somewhere between 11 and 13 percent, depending on whose figures you are using.

Whatever the numbers, the damage includes:

• Elimination of the "Unemployed Parents" Program, which will end cash assistance and employment training to more than 250 two-parent families, more than one-third of them refugees;

• Changes in eligibility rules for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ending benefits to 1100 families in which a member is also receiving disability benefits;

• Changes in Aid for the Permanently and Totally Disabled that will affect more than 400 families a year.

These cuts take cash out of poor people’s empty pockets.

Then there are the cuts to programs, such as those provided by New Hampshire Legal Services, which help indigent people get access to benefits or stay in their homes. There are cuts to hospital reimbursements. Massive cuts to the university system will secure New Hampshire’s status as the state with the lowest level of support for higher education.

State funding will end for sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment and HIV counseling, testing and referral services. The funds now provide support for 20 clinics statewide, which together served 6,000 people last year and which up to this point have been able to provide services regardless of ability to pay.

Every cut is also a pink slip to a state worker or someone who works for an agency that provides services. More than 200 state workers will lose their jobs. The number of those who lose jobs at private agencies will be higher and harder to count.

The agreed-upon budget restores some funding to mental health, disability and elder services programs that were slashed by the House but still leave them with fewer resources than they have at present. The House language which would have effectively ended collective bargaining for public sector workers is gone, but a study committee on the topic has been created and more than 15 bills on this theme have already been filed for next year. Plans to ship up to 600 prisoners to for-profit institutions in other states have been put on hold, but the Department of Corrections has been ordered to study the idea and take bids from private firms.

The provision to weaken the historic responsibility of cities and towns to provide emergency assistance to their residents was deleted.

Yes, it could have been worse, but that is small consolation to workers losing their jobs, poor people losing benefits, students whose already high tuition will spike, and everyone who needs or might need help addressing illness or disability.

We may enter July without a fiscal deficit, but the budget has opened up a compassion deficit that is gaping wider than ever. Saying, as some legislators have, that aid for the needy should be the responsibility of private charities and religious congregations is a moral cop-out. As Dick Ober, president of the state’s largest philanthropic organization says of the possibility that churches and charities would pick up the slack, "This is simply not possible."

The state will also see a widening social justice deficit, with more people vulnerable to falling through the holes in the social safety net and turning to their local governments for emergency assistance.

We also face a huge common-sense deficit. According to a Census report for last November, New Hampshire tops the states in median household income.

It is simply foolish to say we do not have the resources to do better.

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A friend who works for the State of New Hampshire writes:

“Legendary Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said ‘all politics is local’ by which he meant that politics is about people, about relationships between neighbors and colleagues, discussions at work, in the board room, the bedroom, at coffee shops, and town meetings. Given recent New Hampshire politics, I think Tip was right on.

“Lately, AFSC has been providing detailed updates about the local politics of the NH State House and Senate, which I’ve been reading, as an insider. I am a state employee, painfully aware of the impact of budget cuts on state agencies, the programs they run, and the people they serve. I also am aware, while reading AFSC’s updates, of what can’t easily be communicated. The personalities of the politicians, the relationships between state and federal funding, the ‘Sophie’s choices’ that agency heads have had to make as they are forced to present ever-smaller budgets for legislative review.

“There’s also the posturing, the bullying, the backroom deals, the despair, and the layoffs and early retirements of talented and dedicated colleagues.

“None of these things are immediately obvious from the outside, but what’s happening in Concord adds up to the biggest and most dramatic attack on public services and deterioration in the legislative process since the mid-70s. Really, it’s that bad.

“The impact of these changes will be felt by people and communities around the state. Yes, times are tough and we must make difficult choices, but the legislature is making the wrong ones over and over again. Unless they hear from constituents – that means you, me, the local baker, the woman who cuts your hair, your Facebook friends – Republican legislators will continue to believe that they have a mandate to essentially dismantle the social institutions that rely on public funding.”

At this point I need to interject that there are, in fact, some stalwart Republicans who have been resisting their party’s majority and its leaders.  They are putting up a valiant fight for the rights of public sector workers and for the maintenance of a safety net.  They used to be called “moderates,” but the center has shifted so far to the right that I’m not sure that term still applies.

My friend continues:

“I’m talking about our public education system – there are literally proposals to eliminate the Department of Education, various social services for children, the handicapped, the elderly, and the mentally ill. They are decimating funding for the enforcement of rules relating to clean water, fisheries, and other environmental resources. Even prisons and police programs are not off limits. While you might think otherwise, the Republican leaders are actually very open about their intentions, which are aimed at shrinking the role of state government to a size that has not been seen in well over a century.

“And frankly, they’re not meeting enough resistance from the electorate to slow them down much.

“Politics is local because it’s at the local level that impact is ultimately felt, and where people get motivated to get speak up. You don’t have to be an expert in state politics to call your legislator and tell them that you support state programs, state employees, and a robust and effective state government that’s there for its residents, its businesses, and the communities they call home. Many Republicans are cowed by their leadership, and are falling in line because they don’t have much of a choice. An influx of calls from constituents respectfully expressing their opinion can actually give them the cover to vote a different way, but the calls they are getting are from tea party activists, by and large. They need to hear from the rest of us, and often. If you haven’t yet expressed your opinion to your legislator, now’s the time. Don’t wait for the next election, too much is at stake right now.”

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cheryl & lindsay 2 budget hearing 4-21-11 015

Representatives Hall was filled to capacity again yesterday, with more than 600 people expressing their anxieties and anger about the House-passed state budget, which proposes severe cuts in the programs that knit our communities together.  From 2 PM to past 10, with a 1-hour break for dinnharbor homes budget hearing 4-21-11er, members of the Senate Finance Committee listened to dozens of stories describing the impact of state-funded programs in areas such as mental health, adoption services, the arts, environmental protection, homeless services, and more.  

One speaker referred to the budget proponents as “greedy, radical, fiscal bullies.” Another called for “a system of taxation that is fair and equitable for all.” Such comments received hearty applause from the audience, while Senators sat silently at the front of the hall.

I didn’t get the exact words, but I perked up when one speaker asked something like, “Can you think of a time in history when a government was praised for taking away services from the poor and downtrodden while rewarding the rich and their corporations?bragdon budget hearing 4-21-11 023” 

The consequences of cuts – suicide, higher rates of hospitalization and imprisonment, higher levels of unemployment – were made clear to the Senators, at least if they  were listening. 

If their minds and hearts were open as well as their ears, the seven Senators (Morse, Bragdon, O’Dell, Forrester, Barnes, Gallus, and D’Allesandro) might have heard something new, something that moved them.  If they did, perhaps they will ask where we can find resources for the programs our communities rely on instead of just shifting the cuts to kill and maim one group of residents instead of another.   firefighters at budget hearing 4-21-11

Earlier in the day, another Senate Committee took testimony on a  bill to alter the pension system for public employees.  The bill included provisions that wouldn’t exactly end collective bargaining, but would come disturbingly close.  At the moment the right-wing Senate appears to be less hostile to workers than the ultra-right wing House.  The fate of public sector collective bargaining lies in the duel of politics and egos typical of late-session legislative maneuvers.  

With both chambers solidly in favor of “Right to Work (for LESS),” prospects are not bright.  

 

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john preaches 4-19-11 

Rev. John Gregory Davis called on “Passover Prophets and Resurrection Resisters” to bring a message of social justice to the New Hampshire State House at the United Church of Christ New Hampshire Conference’s second Advocacy Day, April 19. And that’s what they did.  Meeting at South Congregational Church in Concord, a few dozen UCC members and friends honed their advocacy skills for most of the morning and then set off for the State House, four blocks away.

Several activists associated with the United Valley Interfaith Project joined up with others from the Granite State Organizing Project to testify against SB 160, one of two bills that threaten to bring back predatory payday and car title loans, allowing interest rates as high as 403%.

“We are here because SB 160 brings usury — something we as people of faith have  opposed for thousands of years — back into New Hampshire,” Rod Wendt and Glinda Allen told the House Commerce Committee. “SB 160 will bring back predatory lending practices that will entrap poor people, people with little education and financial sophistication, in a downward spiral of debt. As people of faith, we find this exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable among us totally inconsistent with the values we hold dear — of caring for the poor, being our brother’s keeper, showing compassion.”

In addition to attending hearings and talking with legislators in the State House Cafeteria, participants swelled the ranks of Interfaith Voices for a Humane Budget, the group that has conducted vigils outside meetings of the UVIP & L Harding 4-19-11Senate Finance Committee since the beginning of April. Today, the vigil moved to the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, whose revenue estimates will determine whether the Senate chooses to slash the budgets for essential services as deeply as the House did. “We are called to bring kindness and compassion to all those places where it has been lost,” said the Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood, of the UNH United Campus Ministry, in one of several prayers offered in the hallway outside State House Room 100, where Senate Ways and Means holds its meetings.

Sadly, furthering exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable among us appears to be entirely consistent with the priorities of legislative leaders, at least in the NH House, which approved its version of the budget March 31. State Senators are still deliberating over the budget, and will hold public hearings in Representatives Hall Thursday from 2 to 4 PM and again from 6 to 8 PM. Whether they will respond to the urgent pleas of those who depend on taxpayer-supported programs for services that enable dignified lives remains to be seen.

Before then, the Senate will show its colors when it votes tomorrow morning on the proposal to turn New Hampshire into a Right-to-Work (for LESS) state, as defined by HB 474. This anti-union, anti-worker agenda has been defeated consistently for at least three decades. But this year, legislators hostile to organized workers appear to have the upper hand.

What was clear today is that anti-union legislation will not pass with the cooperation ODell 4-19-11 of the state’s faith community. Outside Room 100, UCC clergy and lay members made it clear to Senator Bob O’Dell, whose vote could be key, that they oppose Right-to-Work.

Senators have already indicated that they will delete from the House-passed budget a provision stripping effective collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. But another provisi0n with similar intent is contained in HB 580, a House-passed measure on public employee pensions. This one says that when collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) expire, “the continuation … of any medical, dental, and life insurance benefits, retirement and pension benefits, and any other fringe benefits shall be subject to the exclusive authority of the public employer. “ In other words, an employer who refuses to bargain can unilaterally cancel benefits workers have been counting on receiving. Senators who thought such language was not appropriate for the budget rider bill, HB 2, might have a different attitude for similarly pernicious provisions in a pension bill.

Gail Kinney, a member of the UCC’s Commission on Witness and Action, calls the anti-union agenda moving through the legislature a “wholesale attack on the middle class.”

“The undermining of working gail 4-19-11families is feeding the vast economic divide in the U.S. Multiple polls show this attack on workers is not what the public signed on for when it changed political horses in 2010. This is a struggle for economic fairness, balance, and healthy communities that should be of real concern to people of faith,” she said.

The Interfaith Voices vigil resumes Thursday during the Senate Finance Committee’s budget hearing.

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vigil 3-31 batch 2 001

While several thousand people outside chanted “New Hampshire Can Do Better,” and a dozen religious activists continued their prayer vigil in the State House’s third floor hallway, the New Hampshire House of Representatives today approved a $10.2 Billion budget that cuts deeply into the fabric of programs our communities rely upon.

The Concord Monitor called it correctly this morning in an editorial that said the budget is“so heartless invigil 3-31 batch 2 027 its approach to the poor, the disabled and the mentally ill as to be immoral. Should it become law, New Hampshire will be a different state, one that under the guise of ‘personal responsibility’ replaces the social compact with the survival of the fittest.”

The budget proposal, which now moves over to the Senate for further consideration, cuts funds for homeless prevention, mental health , child care subsidies, higher education, secondary education for technical students, and more.

After 16 roll call votes on amendments and procedures, the final roll call vote was 243 to 124.

Yesterday the same group of legislators voted for a measure that would nullify public sector collective bargaining agreements upon their expiration, at which time all workers would be employed at will and subject to unilateral management decisions regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions.   Critics have called it “Wisconsin on vigil 3-31 batch 2 009steroids.”  

The morning began with nine participants in what is now called “Interfaith Voices for a Humane Budget” conducting their vigil in the hallway outside the 3rd floor office of the Speaker of the House.  During the course of the day they were joined by other active clergy, retired clergy, Quakers, and lay members of several congregations.   They agreed they would return Monday at 1 PM, when the House Finance Committee will present the budget to the Senate Finance Committee.  The vigil will relocate to the first floor hallway outside Room 103.  The meeting will be an information session, not a public hearing.  Public testimony will be invited at a later date, but comments to Senators are already timvigil 3-31 batch 2 030ely.   

The Senate Commerce Committee will take up the House-passed proposal to turn New Hampshire into a Right-to-Work (for LESS) state at 9 AM on Tuesday in  Representatives Hall.  This one is a public hearing, which means that anyone can present testimony on why it matters for New Hampshire to respect the human right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively.  

As I write this, hundreds of teachers are rallying on the State House Plaza.  Discouraged as I am by the mean-spiritedness of our elected officials, I am heartened by the renewed community-minded spirit of resistance to the House proposals. 

teachers 3-31 002

 

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Tomorrow I will be part of a group of clergy and other faithful activists carrying  concerns about the devastating impacts of the proposed state budget into the office of the Speaker of the House, Rep. William O’Brien.

We plan to arrive mid-afternoon; it is our intent to conduct our prayerful vigil all night and through the day Thursday until the final vote on the budget.  I hope to provide updates on this blog during the vigil, so keep tuned.

The House Finance Committee’s proposal, which comes to the floor for consideration Wednesday and Thursday, includes deep cuts in human services, an assault on the rights of public sector workers, and a weakening of the frail safety net that our state’s most vulnerable people rely upon.  You can read some of the details in a new report from the NH Fiscal Policy Institute.

Here is the text of the letter we delivered today to the Speaker:

Dear Speaker O’Brien,

We are a small group of New Hampshire clergy and others from several communities and faith traditions. In recent weeks we have closely followed discussions and debates over the state budget. As people who believe in loving our neighbors, and as people who believe that we are unambiguously responsible to advocate for and serve those who are most vulnerable among us, we are deeply troubled by the dramatic cuts in funds for essential services contained in the budget proposal which will be before the House on Wednesday and Thursday. In addition, we are in profound distress over proposals to lessen the responsibilities of communities to care for those most in need and to undermine the collective rights of those who serve our communities as teachers, firefighters, public safety officers, and as other public servants.

It is our intent to conduct a prayerful vigil at your offices during the budget deliberations Wednesday and staying through the night until the budget vote is completed. During this time we plan to share silence, readings and prayers consecrated to different populations impacted by the proposed budget.

We pray our sisters and brothers in the Legislature will be moved by our prayerful witness.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Mary Westfall, Durham

Rev. Dr. Frank Irvine, Concord

Rev. William Exner, Goffstown

Gregory Heath, Canterbury

Mark Barker, Boscawen

Arnie Alpert, Canterbury

L. R. Berger, Contoocook

Barbara French, Henniker

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