House panel hosts hearing

Members of the state finance committee listen to comments during a public hearing in Milford on the proposed state budget. Milford state Rep. Joelle Martin is third from the right.

MILFORD – During a three-hour public hearing Monday night, members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives’ finance committee listened for three hours as people asked for more funding for schools, housing, hiking trails, legal aid, and especially for mental health and developmental disability services.

In February, Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled a $13 billion two-year budget, and now the committee is reviewing the details, including $64 million in one-time money for targeted school building aid and a 31 percent increase in funding for services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The hearing attracted about 100 people to the Amato Center theater, and one of the nine legislators was Rep. Joelle Martin (D-Milford), vice chairwoman of the committee’s Division III, which covers Health and Human Services, the biggest part of the state budget.

Many of the speakers were parents of children with autism and other disabilities, as well as the children themselves, and many wore bright pink scarves saying “People Can’t Wait.”

The governor’s budget includes a 31 percent increase in funding for services to victims of domestic and sexual violence, and Amherst Police Chief Mark Reams spoke about the value of the 13 crisis centers run by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, which provides free and confidential support services.

Reams talked about the role of the crisis center in the community, offering “a place to go and a person to talk to and guide them through an intimidating legal process.”

Bridges is the local crisis center, with offices in Milford and Nashua, and Dawn Reams, the chief’s wife, is executive director, and she also spoke.

Andrea Levy, of Planned Parenthood, said more funds are needed to make up a funding shortfall that will be caused by what critics call the Trump administration’s “gag rule” that prohibits family planning clinics funded by federal money from making abortion referrals.

School funding brought to the microphone several speakers, including state Rep. Megan Murray (D-Amherst), who said many people in Amherst are crushed by their inability to keep up with rising property taxes caused by the state shifting more costs down to the local level.

Karen Hatcher, a Peterborough selectman, called local education funding a crisis, and Milford School Board member Jennifer Siegrist said the school district has $15 million worth of deferred building repairs. The $883,000 in retirement costs the state has pushed down to the local level this year leaves little room to fund critical needs, she said.

“Starving the schools of vital funds” will not be good for the state’s future economic growth, Siegrist said.

Two students, including Brennan Parker, a junior at Milford High School, said avoiding debt plays a big role in choosing a college.

“No one wants to stay here, because (college) prices are too high,” Parker said.

State budget hearings are typically held in larger towns and cities, like Nashua and Salem, and this year, the House Finance Committee split, holding one hearing in northern New Hampshire, in Laconia, and one in southern New Hampshire, in Milford, both on the same night.

On Monday, March 18, at 1 p.m. there will be another hearing at Representatives Hall in Concord, 107 North Main St.

The legislative phase, when both the House and Senate review the agencies’ requests and the governor’s recommended budget, ends June 30. Then they will compile a budget and give it to the governor for his signature.

Kathy Cleveland may be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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