The New Hampshire Senate voted along party lines last week to pass the $11.3 billion dollar two-year state budget. Democrats tried repeatedly to restore funding for mental health, winter maintenance and the renewable energy fund—those efforts failed. Efforts to restore funding to substance abuse treatment, elderly care and developmental services were more successful, though funding levels did not reach what Governor Maggie Hassan had proposed. Republicans have called this budget "conservative, yet compassionate." Senator Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester has been a vocal critic of the budget as passed last week, and he spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about the work that remains to be done.
It’s been described as a very partisan process this year compared to past years. You’ve been in the legislature for a long time. How does this compare—is it more partisan, less partisan?
I think it’s a very partisan situation and I think you can just look at the structure of the House of Representatives. When you really have almost four entities there. You have the Democrats. You have the Shawn Jasper republicans, you have the regular Republicans, and you have the Bill O’Brien Republicans. So you have a quartet over there. And it has manifested itself in the way this budget was prepared. In the Senate, we’re 14-10, Republicans-Democrats, and the budget passed 14-10. I think every amendment that we offered failed 14-10. So there’s an indication that this was a fairly partisan situation.
Is it always such?
Well, you know, it’s not always such. The legislature’s unique in this context. It has a really significant turnover on a biennial basis. So you get over in the House, you can have 100-150 new members all the time. In the Senate—I started in the Senate in 1999 and there’s not one senator left from the day I started, so you can see there’s a turnover. I think that’s the modus operandi of politics in New Hampshire, and maybe around the country—a lot of turnover, a lot of people coming and going. You’re losing a lot of legislative history, and as a result of that, you have to depend on staff. To your initial question, is this as partisan as it’s ever been. Well, it’s been partisan in the past. But I think it’s more partisan this year because of the items that I've stated to you.
What about this budget do you really like?
I really like the fact that the Senate restored things that the House eliminated. [The House] put a dollar in for ServiceLink, cut Meals on Wheels, cut homeless shelters, did a variety of other things that, in my opinion, were unconscionable. The Senate restored some of those things. That’s a plus. Did they go far enough? No, not at all. There were many more things they had to do, and the most egregious situation is both the House and the Senate failed to address the pay raise for state employees, which was a negotiated settlement. The Governor had it in her budget. It’s the cornerstone of what I would call the process of collective bargaining. And if you come to an agreement, if you settle on an agreement, you have to honor that agreement. That’s something that we’ve done in the past, and that really bothers me at this point. Other situations: they’re troublesome. There’s no question about that. But not honoring a collective bargaining agreement is most troubling.
Some Republicans are saying they would have addressed the pay raises for state employees, but it wasn’t brought up. You take issue with that claim.
Yes, I do. I brought it up. I did bring it up. And I chaired finance in the Senate for a couple of cycles, so I ran the budget, I ran the budget process for the Senate. I brought it up twice. And it wasn’t discussed. The chairman of the finance committee issued a press release on it in February, so indeed it was on the table. It was something that should have been discussed.
Is there anything else about this budget as it stands now that you’re really unhappy with?
As I said on the floor, there are $52 million in requests from Health and Human Services that we ignored. We should have addressed some of those items. And let me point out one because this is very important. This budget calls for the reduction of a million dollars a year in satellite offices for Health and Human Services. They have to consolidate them. Let’s address it in this context: How many employees are going to be let go if you close satellite offices? That’s number one. Number two: How are services going to be rendered to the people who use those satellite offices in the past. That’s significant.
But the Democrats did get some of what they wanted back in the Senate version, after the House made those cuts. So would you characterize the budget as—maybe it’s not everything for everyone, but is it a fair compromise?
I don’t think there was any compromise. It’s better, if that’s what you’re alluding to. Yes, it’s better, but the compromise is going to come in the committee of conference. We’ll see what happens there. As this started off, if you fund ServiceLink for one dollar, it’s not acceptable. You can’t run it with one dollar. If you reduce homeless shelters, cut them in half and almost eliminate them, restoring them is just—it makes sense. Meals on Wheels—if you reduce Meals on Wheels and cut them in half and then restore it, you’re just getting back to ground zero, where we were before. So obviously I’m happy with those restorations by the Senate, but think of the fact that the House passed a budget with those things out of it. So you’re going to go to a committee of conference, where the House’s position is $100 million less in spending than the Senate brought over. Think about that. And if their position is: “Eliminate this, eliminate this, eliminate that, and eliminate that,” and you restore it, what are you going to do? Go halfway? I think that’s the problem.