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Personal stories is citizenship in action

They came with their personal stories. They told the six senators in front of them what will happen if funds that provide for their children or other family members are cut. And, they brought fear of their future that is left in the hands of New Hampshire legislators.

The forum was last Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee public hearing on the budget held in historic Representatives Hall in the State House. Rep’s Hall, its nickname, has been the site of thousands of public meetings going back to 1819. There are 400 seats in the hall and the hearing went over six hours. It started at 3 p.m. with a one-hour dinner break. People came and went and at the peak at least 200 of the seats were filled by concerned citizens. Dozens spoke but some, unfortunately, had to leave before their names were called.

Public means just that in New Hampshire. All six of us on the Senate panel stayed until after 10 p.m. to ensure that every citizen who wanted to testify had their chance. It made for a long day but a valuable experience of citizenship in action.

The Senate’s public hearing takes place every two years in the closing days of the Senate’s work on the budget. Every year is different but I doubt the contrast between the public hearing in 2011 and this year could be greater.

Two years ago the Senate was dealing with a budget from the House that had severe cuts in it. Environmental programs such as monitoring of lakes to protect them from milfoil had been eliminated and people came to ask for restoration of funding to protect our lakes. The Department of Cultural Affairs faced elimination and like other departments had advocates speaking for it. There was a desperate tone to much of the testimony.

This year, with a few exceptions, speakers asked the Senate not to change the House budget recommendations. My sense is that most departments are comfortable — not completely happy — with their budgets as they came from the House so they and their stakeholders did not need to speak.

No one spoke this year on retirement or other labor issues affecting current and retired state employees. Two years ago many were at the public hearing to push against reduced benefits and increased employee cost sharing. There was also no one there to speak about public education except for a couple of charter school advocates, no one to talk about the financial struggles at Fish and Game as revenue from fishing and hunting licenses falls, and no one to speak against cost shifting from the state to local governments. Much has changed over the last two years. We live in constrained economic times and we have weathered the greatest recession of our lifetimes. We are also going through the longest recorded period of recovery from any recession.

By far, the issues that drew the greatest numbers of speakers were those concerned with state spending for services to those with disabilities and the victims of domestic and sexual violence.

There are two types of advocates. First, there are the paid employees of social service agencies who as part of their jobs press for funding for their organizations. Second, and much more effective, are the stories of individuals and families that depend on state funded programs.

One of the most powerful spokespersons was Jo Fonda. However successful financially, her husband had abused her and she felt he was an imminent threat to her and their daughter. She feared for her life and her daughter’s life. Through a hotline at a domestic and sexual violence prevention agency, Ms. Fonda was able to escape from her home and find a safe place to stay. She candidly pointed out she was fortunate to have the money to get away and hide from her husband.

Her husband flew their personal plane into their large home in Amherst and destroyed it. Ms. Fonda believes her husband, reacting to a legal protective order that had been issued, committed suicide as part of his plan to also kill Ms. Fonda and their daughter. Jo Fonda believes access to the domestic and sexual violence hotline gave her the courage and the direction to escape her own home and save her life and her daughter’s life.

Every issue is more complicated that the story of one person. But putting a face to a life and death experience that drew national press attention certainly had an impact on the six senators who sat attentively listening to Ms. Fonda. When the vote comes in the next couple of weeks on the domestic and sexual violence spending line in the budget, it is impossible to imagine that Jo Fonda’s story will not be remembered.

The state’s 14 domestic and sexual violence agencies are seeking to restore $300,000 of state funding cut from the Domestic Violence Prevention Program two years ago. When a marriage license is issued, $38 of the current $45 fee goes to fund DVPP. Until this biennium, the state appropriated money to match the marriage license fee. That is the $300,000 decision the Senate Finance Committee will be making soon.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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