On mental health settlement

Two months to go, and the State House is abuzz with House and Senate committees holding public hearings on hundreds of bills. There is much work to do in committees and in House and Senate sessions before we get to committees of conference and final votes in late May and early June. The goal is to wrap up the 2014 session in the first week of June.

When the Attorney General comes into a legislative committee to testify on a bill, you know something very serious is involved.

That was the case when Attorney General Joe Foster, a former Senator, testified in favor of House Bill 1635, which would appropriate money to pay the costs of improvements to our community-based mental health services as a result of a 32-page law suit settlement. In December, the state, federal government and some New Hampshire residents with mental illness made the agreement.

The state was sued by the Disability Rights Center, the Center for Public Representation and the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of citizens with serious mental illness who are or are at a serious risk of being unnecessarily institutionalized. It was alleged the state’s mental health system “does not provide the infrastructure and resources necessary to allow an individual with serious mental illness to be treated in the least restrictive environment possible in his or her community,” Foster said.

To date the costs of defending the state exceeds $4 million for outside counsel. That does not include personnel and attorney costs at the New Hampshire Department of Justice. And if the suit had continued, that number might have doubled, if the plaintiffs were successful and won the case.

Foster pointed out, “If the state were to litigate and lose, of course the opportunity we have had here to make this a New Hampshire-sized agreement — not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution — would not be available. A federal judge would fashion the remedy, and it is very likely that remedy would be more like what the plaintiffs originally proposed and we rejected.”

The settlement costs will be more than $60 million over five years, with about $44 million coming from the state. The balance would come from federal matching funds. HB 1635 only appropriates $7 million in state funds to improve mental health services through June 2015, and $2.2 million for the Department of Justice to pay plaintiffs’ legal fees.

The Legislature has no role in negotiating lawsuit settlements. It has only a couple of options in cases like this one when it comes to finding the money for paying for a settlement. We can appropriate the money but being near mid-point in our financial biennium, we will have to find the money. We could take no action. Then, the case could go forward, and down the road the costs of losing the suit could be more burdensome and expensive, as Foster pointed out.

My guess is we will find the money to get this one behind us.

There was good news on state finances circulating around the State House after revenue for March was tallied. The budget called for revenue of $614.4 million but the state took in $621.1 million, $6.7 million or one percent more than expected.

March was the second month in a row where income was higher than the budget plan, and for the first nine months of the fiscal year that ends on June 30, state revenue is up by $25.5 million over our plan to receive $1,652.4 million. While $25 million is a lot of money, for the year it means we are over budget on the revenue side by just 1.5 percent.

There is a unique element in the March revenue plan. It is the month the state books revenue of $363.6 million from the statewide property tax. That money is collected by municipalities and stays locally as part of the state’s contribution to the annual grants it makes to communities to support public schools. The transaction shows the revenue in March of each year even though the monies never actually flow through state coffers.

March is the biggest month for revenue, and April is second with projected revenue of $284.3 million this year. Our plan calls for taking in nearly $100 million in business taxes as well as $41 million from the interest and dividends tax as investors file their April returns. April is also the month we receive our annual $44.9 million annual payment from participating tobacco companies through the Master Settlement Agreement.

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

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