The 161st General Court has been is session for four months now. The Legislature has a majority Democrat composition, although gains in the Republic ranks were noted across the state, possibly as a result of the overspending accomplished last session. I mention that only because of the acute budget deficit in which we find ourselves. The situation is so messed up it is difficult to begin to explain.
Governor Benson left a $300,000,000.00 surplus to John Lynch. After a short time we are now approaching a deficit which some have valued approaching $700,000,000.00. That looming deficit has dominated the discussion of the Ways & Means Committee thus far. Ways & Means is responsible for determining the appropriateness of fee and tax increases in New Hampshire.
The 2008 estimated $100,000,000.00+ deficit has been the focus of most discussion because it must be cleared from the books with real money. The state cannot merely shift funds from one account to another or apply a one-time single event grant, as has happened thus far in the Governor’s planning.
Representative Vaillancourt of Manchester calls the majority plan “hütenspeile” or shell-game, an apt description if ever there was one. To balance the budget the Governor asked for and received support from the majority to raid (a nice word for ‘steal from’) various dedicated funds established by law to self fund the operations of some agencies. Affected agencies were found in all parts of government. The bill was HB30 for those interested in looking up the debate and vote.
Once money was taken from the agencies they then had a limited operating reserve and were faced with having to cease performing, in some instances, vital functions. Those functions included maintenance of state owned dams, training firefighters and EMTs, training police officers, maintaining the training facilities, registering vehicles, inspecting healthcare and other licensed institutions, assistance to the disabled, housing assistance, reviewing wet land encroachments and mitigation, inspecting bridges, schools, and public buildings for defects and hazards - the list is too long to continue to detail here. Now those agencies were, essentially, out of money.
‘What to do, what to do, oh dear me we don’t have any money left’ was the whine heard in the corridor between the Ways & Means and the Finance Committees. No money left to buy barns for the rich, to remodel the state offices, to spend about $82,000.00 on a three stall ladies’ room refurbishment (right across the hall from the Majority Office and Speaker’s office by happenstance). Just a quick question, how many of you spent $82,000.00 to remodel your bathroom this year? The thought occurred to me, stop spending money on gee-gaws and you will have more to spend on essentials.
Thus, the agencies were running on low with their capital reserves through no fault of their own. They were victims of the legislative equivalent of theft. To keep essential and necessary operations going, the agencies came to Ways & Means, hat in hand to get higher fees and fines to replenish the accounts that were raided. One agency even wanted to transfer fee setting from the legislature to her agency because “it is easier to raise fees through rules than law.”
The result was, on 11-9 votes (11 democrats in favor of raising a tax or fee and 9 republicans opposed to raising that tax or fee); to raise fees on eating a meal at your favorite diner, cigarettes, gasoline, turnpike travel, taking a vacation, renting a car, smokeless tobacco, fire safe cigarette registration (this is a real necessary fee – the state gets a letter from the manufacturer and puts it in a filing cabinet while cashing a $250.00 check – don’t you wish you could make money that way?), filing documents in court, changing the address on your vehicle registration, getting a new or renewal license, getting a record of violations for court, attending an administrative hearing, speeding, stop sign violation, dying (estate tax proposed), being a wise saver (Interest & Dividends tax), being a wise investor (capital gains tax), being in business (refused to consider a revenue raising reduction in the BET/BPT). In one instance the Chair of Ways & Means actually stated that the Committee was considering a ‘tax on the air we breath.’ Some obviously flawed taxes, such as a bottle tax, a beer tax and at least one of several income tax proposals were voted down. Those few, ‘lightening rod’ taxes appeared destined for oblivion merely because it looked good in the press.
The shell-game is still in operation, however. Instead of open and above board discussion of planned fee increases, those fee and fine increases are buried deep in the appropriations bill (HB-2). While hearings were held on the concept presented in the various bills, the bills themselves did not come to the floor. No floor debate on the plethora of tax, fine and fee increases was held. The public was denied the opportunity of voicing to their Representative the approval or objection to the fee/fine/tax increase proposed. The increase instead, was added via an unofficial and quite likely illicit “straw vote” to HB-2.
As the budget process winds it way through Ways & Means and Finance to the House and then the Senate, each of us is going to see significant increases in the fees and taxes we pay. Unfortunately, we are not going to see equivalent increases in services provided by the state. In fact, there will be a decrease in most services across the board. In short we are going to pay more for less. That is not a good business model in the best of circumstances, except maybe for Mr. Madoff. Perhaps we can close our eyes and believe that change is coming, even if facts are to the contrary.
I know it is trite to describe the type of fiscal ineptitude demonstrated the past three years as “typical tax & spend Democrat mismanagement,” but how else would one describe what has been happening? Frittering away a now needed surplus; increasing taxes and fee while forcing lay offs and job terminations; reducing public spending on public safety; increasing state intrusion into our daily lives with more and more and more and more taxes for no perceptible purpose other than to control are all elements of the trite description of the Democrat proposals. This certainly is change, but it is not the change needed for good government or for good public policy.
Jordan G. Ulery
Member 161st New Hampshire General Court
House Ways & Means Committee
Republican - Hillsborough 27
Jordan Ulery is a third term Representative residing in Hudson serving the Communities of Hudson, Litchfield and Pelham. He has served on Criminal Justice in the past and is assigned for the second time to Ways & Means. He has also served temporarily on Transportation and was a member of the Supreme Court Task Force on Public Records Access. He is a member of the Hillsborough County Delegation Executive Board as well.
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Edmund Burke. Bristol 1774