In our second episode about New Hampshire’s state budget, we crack open the budget and look at what exactly we spend all our money on.
We spoke to Anna Brown and Jacquelyn Benson of Citizens Count, a nonpartisan source for civic information in New Hampshire.
NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.
Ben Henry: [00:00:00] There's no good way to ask someone else for money. You know? Unless you're the governor of New Hampshire, in which case,, every two years you give a speech and that's what you do. You aske the state legislature for some money.
Archival audio: [00:00:13] Good morning, Madam Speaker, mister senate president.
Ben Henry: [00:00:18] The state of New Hampshire spends about 5 or 6 billion dollars every year which is a lot of money. But you would be surprised at how fast it goes.
Archival audio: [00:00:27] My fellow citizens this budget provides level funding to school districts. This budget puts 15 more troopers on the road. We are going to double grants for towns roads and bridges.
Ben Henry: [00:00:40] Now if the governor gets to make this big speech and let's be honest the way they talk about it you might think they are the ones who make all the big decisions.
Archival audio: [00:00:49] New Hampshire stands at the threshold of a bright new future.
Ben Henry: [00:00:57] Truth is, not really.
Jacqui Helbert: [00:01:03] This is Civics 101: New Hampshire. Last episode we talked about how the state budget gets made. In part 2, Ben Henry takes a closer look at exactly what it is, we spend that money on and why.
Ben Henry: [00:01:19] The people who really make the hard decisions about the budget are people like Cindy Rosenwald.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:01:24] Hi.
Ben Henry: [00:01:25] Hi. Where are you right now?
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:01:27] I've been in my car. I'm on 93 heading south back to nashua.
Ben Henry: [00:01:33] Rosenwald lives in Nashua and reps the 13th district in the New Hampshire Senate. Before that she was in the house on the Finance Committee.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:01:41] I was on the Finance Committee for four terms.
Ben Henry: [00:01:45] After the governor gives their speech and gets the applause Rosenwald is one of the few people who actually sit down and read the budget. They only have about five weeks to go through it all.
[00:01:56] So like reading the budget must take for ever. Are you like taking this thing home and reading it in bed at night?
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:02:02] Yes exactly. My husband made me because I see propped up in bed with a supple budget. We've pulled all nighters which I haven't done since college.
Ben Henry: [00:02:16] Are you asking yourself questions like Is this a responsible use of taxpayer money. Like is that what's on your mind.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:02:24] That's one question. Sure. What was hardest for me was my first term on the Finance Committee.
Ben Henry: [00:02:33] It was 2011. The recession. They chose to cut funding to nursing homes. She got calls about it.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:02:40] Those phone calls were really hard because I had a mother. She was in her 90s. I understood what the life of a very old person and could be like.
Ben Henry: [00:02:57] New Hampshire has a smaller budget than most states per capita. It's not just recession years. Every year the budget is tight.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:03:05] You have to make hard choices. Yeah. But you did the best you can.
Ben Henry: [00:03:13] Today our tour guides to the state budget are going to be our friends as citizens count a nonpartisan source for civic information in New Hampshire.
Anna Brown: [00:03:20] My name is Anna Brown and I'm director of research and analysis for citizens count. So I read and summarize the thousand bills that go through and try to make them understandable.
Ben Henry: [00:03:30] You might remember Anna from last episode. She's the one who spends a lot of time reading bills.
[00:03:35] Also an amateur MMA fighter.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:03:37] And I am Jacqueline Minson and I'm the editor of Citizens Council. I track about 100 New Hampshire policy issues over the course of the year.
Ben Henry: [00:03:45] In her spare time Jackie writes swashbuckling historical fiction. So let's just start big picture overall when we're looking at the budget. What are the main things that we're spending the most dollars on.
Anna Brown: [00:03:57] So over half of the money we're spending on goes to two areas health and social services which is going to include things like Medicaid. And then the other big one is education. So that's primarily funding for all the schools across the state and other social services. So for example services for people with developmental disabilities.
Ben Henry: [00:04:16] So that's more than half. And then what's the rest of the money what are some of the big players that are soaking up money.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:04:22] Well things like the court system paying for the court system and you're talking paying the salary of judges judges public prosecutors the whole system keeping the buildings up and running. Yeah that's a whole branch of government. So there's a there's. They're busy. State police are in there. Then we have the Fish and Game activities. So resource protection state parks you know.
Ben Henry: [00:04:47] I used to think of the state government as like the mom and pop version of the real government, the Federal Government. Turns out it's not a small operation.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:04:56] I'm looking at the budget from last year right now and it is 840 pages long.
Ben Henry: [00:05:01] How much do you think the state spends on its phone bill. Fourteen million dollars out of state travel. Four million. Heat and electricity. 31 million. Health and retirement benefits for employees. Three hundred and sixty million. You want to get these numbers about how the budget is allocated. They're not just written down in that huge document. You've got to crunch the numbers yourself the state publishes a big old spreadsheet of the budget. So I went in there did some addition.
[00:05:30] About 10 percent of the entire 2013 budget just pays the salaries of government employees. Fun fact those employees were paid 26 million in overtime pay in 2018. That's a lot of overtime. And I respect the hustle. OK. So those numbers were from 2018 but how about the next budget or the one after that.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:05:51] It's going to change from year to year. You heard a lot in the last budget was about addiction services. I think that we will hear about that again this year. But you didn't hear quite as much about the education funding in the last couple of years and now that's definitely going to be on the agenda this time around.
Anna Brown: [00:06:05] And these agencies are just trying to survive on the limited revenue they have.
[00:06:10] So you'll see the budget numbers might go up a little bit but they'll stay pretty level or things that just become screaming priorities.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:06:17] We've got you know a lot of red listed bridges that bridges that need really intensive intervention.
Ben Henry: [00:06:23] Legislators have to focus on those pressing issues of the day the crumbling bridges but the little changes that they make every two years add up in the long run. If you look back 20 years ago the budget was about two thirds the size it is today. Every year it gets a little bigger although during the recession overall spending went down and it still hasn't recovered.
[00:06:44] For example the amount we spend on education is still declining whereas the amount we spend on social services and healthcare that has bounced back to where it was before the recession. And we're not the only state that spends a ton on health care. Nationwide the cost of health care has skyrocketed.
Anna Brown: [00:07:01] So the biggest dollar sign that you're going to see in the health care budget is Medicaid Medicaid.
Ben Henry: [00:07:07] Basically if you don't make very much money if your income is below a certain level the government will pay for things like doctor visits surgeries medication things like that. The cost of Medicaid is split between the federal and state governments.
Ben Henry: [00:07:20] Another big chunk of that healthcare spending is mental health care.
Anna Brown: [00:07:24] And for a long time mental health was kind of put on the back burner because we had a lot of other things going on in 2008 state revenue crashed with the economy and we still needed to do things like pay for schools give students an education. And it was actually a lawsuit that brought mental health back to the forefront.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:07:43] It's one thing to say here's all these agencies and they've told us what and what they want and we're going to meet their needs and that's great. But when you have to start deciding who's getting it that's often where the individual values of particular legislators are going to come into play.
Ben Henry: [00:08:02] Cutting the budget that's just part of the budget process and New Hampshire is known as a pretty fiscally conservative state but it is possible to go too far. Legally speaking. Some federal laws require the state government to pay for certain stuff like the Americans With Disabilities Act for example we have to make sure public buildings are accessible for everyone and if they're not we have to pay for the upgrades. The New Hampshire Constitution also requires the government to pay for certain things which is a lot of rules to follow and state lawmakers don't always follow them and that is when the lawyers get involved.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:08:39] That's what put the women's prison on the agenda. We got sued because the women you know the female prisoners said that their treatment wasn't equal to male prisoners.
[00:08:48] And the courts agreed.
Ben Henry: [00:08:49] The state just built a brand new women's prison. Something similar happened with education funding schools in New Hampshire used to be funded at the local level. So wealthy towns could pay for good schools while other towns could not.
[00:09:03] That was a problem.
Jacquelyn Benson: [00:09:04] Because the New Hampshire Constitution says that the state is supposed to provide an adequate education. A couple of towns lawyered up. They took the state to court and they said you're not doing your job. You need to be making sure that we can afford to educate our children.
Ben Henry: [00:09:19] The towns won that lawsuit. You know how we spend all that money in the state budget on education. Yeah that's not because of the legislature making a spending choice. It came from a different part of democracy at work. It was the people taking the government to court and winning. So if you're writing a budget you've got to put out fires. You need to pay for the programs that are straight up falling apart. You've got to fulfill the core constitutional rights of your citizens. Behind every state constitution there's got to be a little bit of cash. That responsibility is not lost on Cindy Rosenwald the representative from Nashua.
Cindy Rosenwald: [00:10:08] Well it feels good to go back to my community and say we were able to get some reimbursements to pay Nashwa back for water and sewer upgrades.
Ben Henry: [00:10:21] That's the unglamorous life of a state legislator when your town gets reimbursed for a sewer upgrade. Pretty exciting.
[00:10:30] That is it for Civics 101: New Hampshire this show is produced by me Ben Henry along with Jacqui Helbert and Daniela Allee with help from Jack Rodolico. our Executive producer is Erica Janik. Civics 101 New Hampshire is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We're coming to you from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio.