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Area nonprofits optimistic about state budget

CONCORD — The state’s two-year $10.8 billion operating budget increases funding for services for people with mental illness and disabilities, and includes a $100 million boost for higher education. But the biennial budget does not authorize the expansion of Medicaid, nor does it include tax increases to pay for the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Reaction to the 2014-15 state budget — signed into law by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan on June 31 — has been fairly positive among the Monadnock region’s nonprofit agencies, with agency directors and chief executive officers saying they are cautiously optimistic that new funding will benefit their local programs and services. While this budget appears to be an improvement over the 2012-13 budget for area health agencies, a handful of local nonprofits have cited a lack of clarity from the state about how much money they can expect to receive, if any, and when. The state’s 2012-13 budget, which was about $800 million less than the 2014-15 budget, included numerous cuts to social services programs that drew criticism from families and advocates for people with disabilities throughout the Monadnock region.

The 2014-15 state budget includes $28 million more just for the mental health system and eliminates the wait list for services for people with development disabilities — two improvements that Phil Wyzik, chief executive officer of Monadnock Family Services, said Friday encourage him. Monadnock Family Services, or MFS, — which is based in Keene and has an office in Peterborough — is a nonprofit community mental health agency serving 35 towns in Cheshire and western Hillsborough counties.

“The biggest crises right now in mental health is the lack of inpatient beds at New Hampshire Hospital [in Concord],” Wyzik said about the publicly funded hospital that provides a rang of specialized psychiatric services to the needy . “This new money will create more opportunities to get that level of care that New Hampshire residents need. [This funding] won’t solve the problem for everyone, everywhere, but it’s a good start.”

In addition to waiting to see how new monies allocated for health services could benefit MFS, Wyzik said the agency is closely watching the state’s consideration of Medicaid expansion. Currently, a bipartisan committee of 11 members is weighing the benefits of expanding Medicaid to an estimated 58,000 low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act, and capturing an estimated $2.5 billion in federal funding that would be distributed to the state over seven years. The commission is slated to share its recommendations by Oct. 15.

“Organizations like us see a lot of Medicaid patients and, therefore, think expansion is good because it gives people who are at a lower income level the capacity for insurance so that they can take care of their health needs,” Wyzik said.

Alan Greene, executive director of Monadnock Developmental Services, said Monday that the elimination of the wait list for services for people with disabilities is an important component of the biennial budget. The elimination represents $43.4 million in funding of services over the next two years. “Every other year, we hold our breath to see what the wait list resource will be this time,” Greene said.

What’s of concern this budget cycle, Greene said is the requirement that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services cut $7 million out of its budget , in order to help balance state spending. Greene said if none of the important programs his agency relies on are cut as a part of the $7 million budget reduction to Health and Human Services, the 2014-15 budget will be a plus overall.

As a part of a compromise reached by the House and Senate, Hassan is slated to cut $25 million in staff and benefits for state employees and employees of state-supported programs , with $10 million of the $25 million in cuts strictly for state workers . State Rep. Susan Emerson (R-Rindge) said Monday that it is unclear at this time what jobs could be on the line, but that she is hopeful most of the cuts will be made through attrition.

Despite the personnel cuts, Emerson said she is confident that the 2014-15 budget is a major improvement over the 2012-13 budget, which left the Health and Human Services budget “bare bones” and inadequately funded higher education.

The cuts enacted by the Legislature to the state’s university system — which includes the University of New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and Granite State College — in the last budget cycle slashed about $100 million, or 49 percent, in annual aid to these colleges . This time around university officials made an appeal to the Legislature to restore funding in exchange for a two-year tuition freeze. Tuition at the state’s seven community colleges will also remain at last year’s level for the 2013-14 school year. When the state reduced its support for higher education two years ago, the budget shortfall was shifted to New Hampshire families.

The universities are slated to receive $69 million in the first year of the new biennium, which began July 1, and $84 million in the second year for a total of $153 million. According to a press release issued June 28 by University of New Hampshire media relations , the tuition freeze is the first approved in a vote by the university system’s Board of Trustees in 25 years.

By restoring the funds for higher education, State Rep. Doug Ley (D-Jaffrey) said the state has made substantial progress, but there is room for improvement. “We are still ranked as one of the lowest states per capita in terms of support for students who pursue higher education. The average graduate is $32,000 in debt,” he said.

Attempts to provide new funding revenues to address the state’s deteriorating infrastructure, specifically its roads and bridges, failed this budget cycle, Ley said, with the Senate insistent upon no tax increases. The House, particularly Democrats, supported a 12 cent increase over the next four years on the state gas tax, which is currently 19 cents per gallon, Ley said. But that, in addition to a proposal to up the cigarette tax by 20 cents, failed. Both of which Democrats had been calling for to fund infrastructure improvements.

The inability of the House and Senate to reach an agreement about how to provide new monies for the state’s roads and bridges is a big downside to the 2014-15 budget, said State Rep. Dick Ames (D-Jaffrey). “The end result is we’re looking at a bleak future in terms of our red-listed bridges and our road maintenance. We need to do something about this, but the question is what,” Ames said.

The 2014-15 budget includes $4 million each year for the next two years for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which provides matching grants to New Hampshire communities to protect and preserve historic buildings and lands. It also includes $9.4 million in state aid grant monies for the more than 120 delayed and deferred drinking water, wastewater and landfill projects throughout New Hampshire. About $1.3 million of those funds have been allocated to wastewater projects in Jaffrey and Peterborough.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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