Hassan, Allies Seek HHS Boost

West Lebanon — Democrats are pushing to restore money lost to cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services after learning that the state ended the last fiscal year with $19 million more than expected.

Gov. Maggie Hassan and House Democratic leadership have laid out their plan for what to do with the unanticipated revenue, which officials attribute to an improved economy and lawsuit settlements. The total annual surplus was $76 million, but budget writers were already counting on $57 million.

Hassan and other Democrats want to restore $7 million in cuts made to Health and Human Services during negotiations with state Senate Republicans earlier in the year. The cuts, which department officials are still deciding how to implement, would be spread out over the next two years. The rest of the money would go to the state’s rainy day fund.

It’s unclear whether Republicans will agree to restore the HHS cuts. Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said on Monday that she does not support putting money back into the HHS budget.

“I think we shouldn’t be so quick to rush into spending money when we’ve already balanced the budget and everybody’s agreed to it,” Forrester said. “It’s nice to see the money to come in and I understand (Hassan’s) desire to do that, but I think we’re jumping the gun a little bit.”

Forrester — who represents the Grafton County towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Orange, Dorchester and Grafton — described the surplus as a “great opportunity for us to build up the rainy day fund.” She said the state should use all of the $19 million in surplus money to bolster its emergency savings account in order to improve the state’s bond rating.

“It’s my priority as the Finance chair to build up that rainy day fund with any surpluses that we’ve earned,” she said.

Democrats in the Senate appeared to be lining up behind the governor’s proposal on Monday, with Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, voicing his support along with state Sen. David Pierce, D-Etna. Senate President Chuck Morse’s office declined to comment on the surplus. Any spending of surplus money would need to be outlined in legislation that would need to be approved by both the House, Senate and the governor.

Catherine Hogan, the director of development and community relations at the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire based in Lebanon, said that out of the population the VNA serves, those at the highest risk of being impacted by the cuts would be elderly on long-term disability who rely on personal care attendants to be able to stay in their homes.

“It impacts the level of services we can provide to them,” Hogan said. “It impacts being able to keep enough staff on hand.”

Hogan added that the elderly and disabled population lives in a fragile world to begin with, so the impact of every cut is felt.

“To say that we should take our surplus and keep holding it away when we’ve really been forced in these cuts to keep trimming and trimming to the bone in these services, it seems egregious,” Hogan said. “If there’s excess, please, bring it back.”

State Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, said she supported the governor’s plan, but also warned that there is plenty of uncertainty still to be factored into the equation. The partial federal government shutdown and upcoming debt ceiling fight, especially, could impact what the state decides to do with the surplus.

“We now have to figure out how much we’re going to be hurt by the shutdown before we can make any serious decisions, but I have been looking at whether we could get the Senate to go along with us on restoring some of those cuts even before we got that surplus,” Almy said.

Almy said that a government default or a continued shutdown could erase the moderate growth seen in business revenues in the state, as well as do further damage to tourism and hurt the housing recovery.

Almy disputed the assertion that an additional $7 million to be put in the rainy day fund would have any near-term impact on the state’s bond ratings. She said even the entire $19 million would have little affect.

“If we put that amount of money in and we continued to put money in, and we got ourselves back to a point I think we’ve reached once in the last 20 years of somewhere around $100 million, then that would probably change our bond rating,” Almy said. “But we’re a long way below that now.”

State Rep. Laurie Harding, D-Lebanon — the vice chairwoman of the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee — fully backed the restoration of the cuts.

“I’m a nurse,” Harding said. “I think the more that goes to HHS, the better. But there’s clearly an investment in wanting to put some money in the rainy day fund, and I think the Republicans would like that as well. I think that’s prudent for sure.”

While the $7 million in cuts to the department would most likely come from personnel and not directly affect funding for organizations, Harding said that cutting employees makes the department inefficient and unable to act as quickly on answering inquiries or writing grants, as two examples.

“The trickle-down effect is huge,” she said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213