CONCORD — Advocates for elderly services, public education, legal assistance and a variety of other causes made their case for state funding on Monday as the House Finance Committee hosted a public hearing on the state budget for fiscal years 2020-21.
Many came sporting colors for their cause, filling almost every spot in the 400-seat Representatives Hall.
Needs of older citizens were represented by those wearing red AARP scarves. Students from Berlin showed up with white T-shirts emblazoned with “Save our Schools.” Those representing the developmentally disabled community were sporting light pink.
People living with developmental disabilities came to testify on their own behalf, some in wheelchairs, urging lawmakers to increase the hourly rates for home health aides whose services are essential in their day-to-day life.
From his wheelchair, Galen Spiegler of Keene used a speech-generating device to make his point that the home care aides who help him with daily necessities are becoming harder to find and harder to retain, given the state’s low rate of Medicaid reimbursement. He received a standing ovation in the packed hall.
“The current low reimbursement rate presents a real challenge to recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce,” said Dr. L. Eric Schlepphorst, chairman of the board of Granite State Independent Living. “It truly is a crisis; unfortunately it’s a silent crisis, and we want to make it known.”
He called on lawmakers to dedicate all of the governor’s 2.5 percent increase in funding for community independent living programs to be dedicated to reimbursement rates, along with other increases contained in bills working their way through the Legislature.
Supporters of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which provides legal services to low-income households, also turned out in force to protest cuts in the NHLA budget by Gov. Chris Sununu, who has proposed a cut from $1.2 million a year to $650,000 a year.
Barbara Eiermann, 90, of Exeter, a retired school teacher, described how NHLA helped her resolve a legal problem, and urged the Finance Committee to push back on Sununu’s recommendation.
“Today at this very hearing, you’ve heard from a mother with a disabled child, schools with handicapped students and college-educated adults who are victims of abuse,” she said. “New Hampshire Legal Assistance has helped all of these people.”
A spokesman for the governor’s office said NHLA was given fair consideration among many competing concerns, including nearly $1 million in additional funding to support the state’s public defender program and additional funding for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
“As with any responsible budget, funding increases in certain areas lead to difficult choices on targeted reductions,” said Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt.
In addition to legal assistance and Medicaid rates, education funding was a recurring theme.
Berlin Superintendent Corinne Cascadden, accompanied by students from the economically challenged North Country community, called on the state to restore funding that has been taken away in recent years.
“The city cannot continue to operate its school system without New Hampshire upholding its constitutional responsibility for state aid to education,” she said. “Why aren’t the students of Berlin offered the same rich resources and educational opportunities that students in property-rich communities can afford to provide?
Sununu’s budget did not include any increase in the per-pupil base grant the state offers, but various House bills would do so.
Mental health needs were also at the forefront, as one speaker after another urged the state to fully fund the 10-year mental health plan released recently by the Department of Health and Human Services.
High on that list is funding for the state’s first Children’s Mobile Crisis Team.
Darlene Gildersleeve of Hopkinton described how her son, 19, avoided hospitalization because one of the state’s adult mobile crisis teams was able to stabilize him during a recent mental health crisis. But his sister, Gildersleeve’s 13-year-old daughter, suffered from repeated out-of-state hospitalization.
“If a children’s mobile crisis team could have treated her in our community, she could have stayed in the home and not missed school for more than 62 days,” she said. “The commute to the hospital was exhausting and expensive. Family members were crushed to not have such a sweet and kind daughter and sister home with us.”
The House has until April 11 to turn its version of the budget over to the Senate. The House and Senate in conference have until June 27 to complete action on the budget and hand it over to Sununu, who can sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.