With the state’s budget stalemate now in its second month, the impacts of the current stopgap spending plan are starting to come into view. But because it’s been a dozen years since the state last found itself in this situation, navigating these budgetary waters is proving a challenge -- both for state agencies and for those who rely on their services.
Take fish food, for instance. Every summer the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department spends roughly $300,000 upfront to buy a year's worth of pellets to feed the fish at its six hatcheries. But this year, the department has just half the money to spend on hand. As a result, the agency can only buy half the fish food it needs for the coming year, which likely means they'll pay a higher price per ton.
“You know we go to the lowest bidder and we are going to try to talk him into giving us a low bid, selling half of it to us and holding the other half and continuing to give us that good price in January and that may not happen,” said Fish & Game Major Kevin Jordan.
Jordan’s concerns stem from the ongoing budget stalemate in Concord. And he’s not alone in his worries. Agencies across state government are struggling to do business as usual under the six-month spending plan now in place. This half-year budget, based on last year’s spending levels, has been in effect since Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed the Legislature’s budget plan at the end of June. She and Republicans have been unable to find a compromise.
Top state officials such as Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas say the short-term "continuing resolution" budget has involved a lot of moving around money to keep key programs like Medicaid running.
“For us it means just basically a couple of additional steps that we need to go through in order to get things approved. There is also a requirement to be very vigilant in terms of our spending," Toumpas said.
But outside the State House, it’s more than just accounting headaches. The budget gridlock is affecting schools, road projects, local governments and clinics, where it's having human impacts, too. Many substance abuse treatment facilities, for instance, would have received significantly more money to treat addicts in the vetoed budget than they’re now getting.
Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center in Gilford said her center’s intensive outpatient program was expected to more than double its occupancy from 10 to almost 30 patients with the added money.
“That just delays making decisions on hiring new staff, renting new space," Abikoff said. "You can’t expand programs without having the resources to expand those programs."
Horizons’ patients are often right out of rehab, and they rely on one-on-one counseling, group sessions and classes on the science behind addiction to get better.
For some people, it has been a real success. Twenty-two-year-old Kaitlyn Milllete of Giford, who started using heroin at age 15, said this program helped her stay clean for a year and a half. She is worried the budget fight in Concord could end up hurting people struggling to get sober.
“With this going on and this being put on hold, you are risking another addict’s life. You are putting their life on hold. In my eyes, if that was me and got told you have to wait, I’d feel like I am not that important,” Millete said.
Other public health programs affected include a 10-bed mental health crisis unit at the New Hampshire Hospital. The unit was expected to open in July, but due to the current funding quandary that can't happen until a new budget is passed.
Charter schools are also feeling the pinch. The vetoed budget included an additional $1,000 per pupil for charter schools, which may not come through.
Jennifer Cava, the director of the Academy of Science and Design in Nashua, said this additional money, roughly $500,000 for her school, would have helped fund long-delayed raises for her staff.
“So I have had some very, very difficult conversations with teachers who are thriving here and their students are thriving and are forced with the very difficult decision to leave, because we are not able to continue to bring their salaries up by a 1,000 dollars or more a year, which teachers are seeing in regular district schools,” Cava said.
And at the Department of Transportation, Deputy Commissioner Patrick McKenna said living under a six-month budget at the height of road construction season makes it difficult to pay up front costs of projects already in the works. McKenna says he expects this shortfall to delay work on the Everett and Spaulding Turnpikes.
It may also postpone planning for winter road maintenance, McKenna said, such buying salt supply in bulk, replacing old equipment and hiring additional staff.
“The winter activity that we do . . . that is a 365 day activity," McKenna said. "And we try to make sure we spread it out, plan for and we don’t have to then react to the lack of planning.”
The budget standoff in Concord also creates some hurdles for cities and towns who can’t set their tax rates with any certainty until a final state budget is in place. In Dover, city manager Michael Joyal said the uncertainty around various state aid programs makes it tough to know if his budget is balanced.
“If for whatever reasons there were further cuts to local aid, we would likely have to make budget adjustments, particularly after the tax rate was set and especially if tax bills have gone out, we would make adjustments in our budget and that would have obviously an impact on services,” Joyal said.
Legislators don’t expect to begin working on a new budget proposal until September at the earliest. But compromise so far has been hard to come by, leading many State House observers to wonder if a deal will be struck before the end of the year.