House Budget Draft Lets Us Evaluate and Change Priorities


By Charlie Arlinghaus

April 13, 2011

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The budget that passed the House and was sent to the Senate at the end of March wasn’t perfect nor is it supposed to be. What the budget did do is to use realistic budget numbers and make the very difficult decisions required to balance a budget and close the largest budget gap in modern history. Each of us will set different priorities for spending but the House draft of the budget clarifies the choices we have to make if we want to change some of those decisions or create different priorities.

The House draft is probably the most difficult part of the process. They have only six weeks and program supporters still talk about each program independent of the budget as a whole. The major accomplishment of the House draft is to take the level of money the House and Senate agree on and craft an actual budget based on that amount. It becomes what a final budget might look like.

They have to make broad decisions and weigh each program against every other program. But now we have a draft that balances and we can look at it and decide where to reprioritize.

The most debated parts of the budget are the cuts made to human service programs. As I’ve mentioned before, every part of the budget was reduced. Programs in Health and Human Services saw a smaller reduction but a reduction nonetheless.

The hardest part of this year’s budget is to account for stimulus programs in making comparisons. So, for example, the amount of general fund (state tax dollar) money spent on HHS isn’t actually changing much. However, in the last budget we spent $167 million of federal stimulus money as if it were state tax dollars. So while the budget impact is flat, a fair comparison of changes the program itself has to make requires we add back in the stimulus money and suggests a cut of about 12.5%. This is still less than the 29% cut to the rest of state government but somewhat higher than the 4% cut to local aid programs.

Perhaps the most controversial cuts to HHS programs are the cuts to mental health programs and to services for people with developmental disabilities. To measure the impact of those cuts on the population served, I’m going to make comparisons using the total funds in the budget – all money spent in those divisions regardless of whether it’s from federal sources, state sources or grants – because it is total funds that determine how much or how little an agency can do.

The divisions of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services make up about 20% of the Health and Human Services budget. The House passed budget for FY2012, the first and lowest of the two fiscal years in the budget, is about $1.8 billion for HHS. Of that total, $353 million goes to Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

The total budgeted HHS spending is about 6% less in total funds than two years before and actually 4% higher than four years before.

Many budget observers would say that while cuts to some programs are quite sensible in difficult economic times, programs that help people who can’t help themselves are in a different category and should bear a significantly lesser burden. The most often cited categories are services for mental health and developmental disabilities.

The Division of Developmental Services actually fares better than HHS as a whole in the House budget. The House budgeted amount is $255 million in 2012. That represents an increase of 7% over 2 years ago and 22% more than 4 years ago.

In contrast, the Division of Behavioral Health actually fares worse than HHS as a whole. Their total fund appropriation in FY2012 is $98 million which is about 18% less than 2 years ago and even 1% less than four years before.

The House budget was a huge step forward in the process. It set priorities and achieves a realistic balance. It also allows us to compare and think about priorities and making some alterations to those priorities.

The House prioritized cuts to state government that were significantly greater than cuts to the local aid half of the budget. HHS quite sensibly saw smaller cuts than the rest of state government did but Behavioral Health saw cuts larger than the department as a whole.

A sensible compromise might bring local aid cuts closer in line to the cuts to state government and a lesser cut to Behavioral Health.