CONCORD — The lack of a permanent state budget has slowed the time it takes to review cases of abused or neglected children, risked federal takeover of wetland permitting and will soon cause an account for court-ordered advocates for minor children to run dry, agency heads told a legislative panel meeting Tuesday.
The House and Senate finance committees hosted the second of three public hearings for state officials and citizens about the impact of Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of the state budget in June.
The first hearing focused on programs in the Department of Health and Human Services, the largest agency that consumes roughly half of the $13 billion state budget.
The third and final session, on Aug. 29, will cover the Department of Education, and particularly any fallout from the veto’s block of the largest increase in state aid to school districts in 20 years.
Tuesday’s session in the Legislative Office Building was about all the other state programs.
Since Sununu’s veto, state government has been operating on a 90-day continuing resolution that lets agency heads spend a quarter of what was approved for their total budget in 2018.
The new Office of Child Advocate, which serves as the ombudsman looking into the Division of Children, Youth and Families’ handling of child abuse and neglect case, has been unable to fill two positions.
“These positions are vital to meet the ever-increasing workload of the office and fulfill the statutorily established mission to assure children’s best interests are protected,” said Associate Director Emily Lawrence.
There were 123 new cases last month, including 26 complaints and another 97 incident reports.
There are 159 open cases, and Lawrence said the lack of staff has led to delayed responses.
“Because the office is a last resort on the heels of a difficult experience, we must be responsive in order to salvage relationships between the state and the community,” Lawrence said. “The two positions will improve office response time.”
Lawrence said the budget also included funds that would allow the office to track the approximately 70 children placed out-of-state by DCYF.
The office hasn’t been able to answer two reports of children missing from those out-of-state programs.
Environmental Services Commissioner Robert Scott said his agency was counting on the vetoed budget and companion trailer bill to provide a fee increase to staff up its unit that grants wetland permits.
There are five vacancies and the agency has been in danger of missing deadlines for final actions on permits.
If the deadlines are missed, the applicant can then bypass the state and ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue the permit.
“It’s not in anyone’s interest to do this so we hope it doesn’t happen,” Scott said.
Sarah Blodgett, executive director with the New Hampshire Judicial Council, said spending to support guardian ad litems, or court-ordered advocates for children, was up 25 percent over the previous year.
“We anticipate running out of money before the continuing resolution period has ended,” Blodgett said.
Senate Finance Chairman Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said the consequences of inaction only get worse as time goes on.
“There is no doubt that if it continues, the bottom falls out,” D’Allesandro said.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said these sessions have been propaganda to try to pressure Sununu, who has negotiated fairly with Democratic legislative leaders as this dispute has gone on.
“This is grandstanding, plain and simple,” Bradley said.
“The governor has put a solid proposal on the table that splits the difference with regards to business taxes and does it in a fiscally responsible way. Instead they prefer to hold their hearings, parade their witnesses and scream that the sky is falling.”
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said Sununu has been the obstacle to an agreement.
“It is time for Governor Sununu to tell the public what he would cut from the budget to fund the additional corporate tax breaks he wants so we can work to resolve this budget crisis,” said Feltes, who is considering a Democratic primary run for governor in 2020.
On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders in an e-mail spelled out to its caucus members a proposal they said was presented to Sununu during private talks last Friday.
The continuing resolution at lower spending levels over the three months is expected to generate about $22 million in savings.
Democrats proposed to use half of these savings to give business owners a tax credit to offset the higher tax rates they paid in the Business Profits and Enterprise Taxes during the first two quarters of 2019.
The proposal would use the other half of the savings to grant a new contract to state workers.
Sununu has in the past vowed to oppose the business tax increases and said he vetoed the budget because it would have created nearly a $100 million structural deficit in the future by using a one-time budget surplus to support ongoing spending.