Op-Ed: Living within our means

Friday, April 8, 2011

By Rep. Philip Munck

The New Hampshire House of Representatives has accepted what is possibly the most difficult budget ever prepared and has sent it on to the Senate. It is a budget constrained by a reduction in revenues of about three-quarters of a billion dollars which is an immense amount in our state.

The budget contains the controversial so-called Kurk amendment which significantly strengthens the position of the employer in collective bargaining. I voted to remove the amendment from the budget but that effort failed to carry. It does not do away with collective bargaining but it does give a powerful incentive to employees to settle contracts on terms that they might not otherwise have accepted.
Other than the Kurk amendment, the budget is acceptable if not perfect. It makes cuts in nearly every area of state government in order to spend no more money than we anticipate taking in. Adding any money to a given area of the budget requires that it be taken away from somewhere else. My clear impression of the voters of New Hampshire is that no additional taxes are wanted so what we have is what will generate the money that we get.

An argument was made that we should estimate revenues higher because the economy was getting better and that we could spend the additional money which was needed because the economy is getting worse. That does not seem reasonable.

The budget has moved to the Senate where a new look will be taken at it and without a doubt the Senate will make changes. Those changes will have to be reconciled with the House plan before a final budget is adopted and sent to the governor.

While the budget document is built up of modules for a great number of programs, ultimately department heads have a great deal of flexibility in where the money is spent once it is appropriated. This is particularly true in the Department of Health and Human Services which oversees a very large number of programs. If the commissioner sees a better way to deploy the resources given the department, changes will be made.

There is no question that the Kurk amendment was widely supported. There is a clear perception by many that public employees are not badly paid and that they, particularly those in unions, receive fringe benefits far higher than those received by people in the private sector. It is also believed that unions have little incentive to settling new contracts because the most important features of the expired contract remain in force indefinitely. No matter what happens to the specific language in the Kurk amendment, it is likely that some measure(s) will be taken to force contract negotiations to settle and those measures will not favor the employee. We may wish it otherwise but that is the fact.

The budget also addresses changes to the N.H. Retirement System for state and local government employees. The main features of any change to the retirement system includes increased contributions and reductions of benefits. The most contentious issues are associated with what changes should impact which employees. A complete analysis of the issues is beyond my space today but there are many trade-offs that can be made while insuring that there will be money in the fund when our employees retire.

The main fact is that we must live within our means. Unlike the Congress, New Hampshire does not have the ability to print money. Unlike the Congress, the Legislature does not have the stomach to borrow to pay for operating expenses which merely lays the payment burden on our children. Unlike the Congress, the Legislature is not willing to “kick the can down the street” and refuse to face the problem now.

The House budget does not cut as extremely as the governor’s budget would have in some areas. If some of those measures (notably reduction in aid to cities, towns and school districts) had been adopted, it would have shifted costs directly to the local property tax. The state would have looked better but it would have translated directly to property tax increases or loss of services at the local level.

State Rep. Philip Munck

Somersworth and Rollinsford


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