Diana Lacey : Casinos can end NH's long-term budget woes
Now is the time for the New Hampshire House to pass a casino bill; Senate Bill 366 deserves its support. Casino opponents make a lot of excuses, but I've spent more than 20 years getting a bird's eye view of our government here in New Hampshire. Here's a small glimpse into what we've got to show for ourselves as a state when it comes to managing our finances:
• Twenty-eight years ago we were sued for failing to provide appropriate services to educationally handicapped youth in our state safety net. This year we will again place some of these children at risk with more budget cuts.
• The health, safety and well-being of our most vulnerable children — those abused and neglected — was another thing we failed to protect, which is why we were sued 23 years ago. Eleven years later we faced federal courts again because we were still failing our children.
• We have faced lawsuits for more than 30 years because we do not adequately fund public education. Claremont I and II have now spanned two generations and the problem still isn't fixed.
• Ten years ago we reneged on rates paid to residential providers serving youth in the care of the state. We left some providers going to food pantries by our action.
• A quarter century ago we reformed our mental health system and were commended for it; within 10 years we failed them again. We violated federal law and cleaned up our act. We were sued again and recently settled for $30 million.
• Failing thousands of female prisoners for more than three decades on their road to rehabilitation and reform, we've faced two class action lawsuits three decades apart.
• Five years ago more than 200 doctors and other health care entities sued the Legislature for illegally taking $110 million from the medical liability insurance fund.
• New Hampshire hospitals sued us for taking over $100 million in Medicaid money to balance the budget.
• In the 1970s-1990s state employees were promised free health care in retirement until they died; five years ago we reneged on that promise, leaving thousands of former workers without adequate funds for health care. We remain more than $2 billion in debt to them for even just the partial payment of their health insurance we still offer.
• Thanks to 20-plus years of budget gimmicks, we are similarly in debt to active and retired public workers for insufficiently contributing to the pensions we promised them. In the past five years, 70,000 public workers and retirees sued us multiple times. More than $200 million in pension benefit changes are at stake.
• In the past six years we've taken out more than $125 million of budget cuts on less than 1 percent of the population by eliminating 17 percent (almost 2,000) of the good full-time jobs in state public service. Thirty years ago, we took such pride in these jobs that high school students took civil service aptitude tests.
This is just some of what's been happening as a result of New Hampshire's shameful budget shenanigans. Time and again the courts have proved New Hampshire doesn't have a spending problem (at least not over spending). New Hampshire has a revenue problem and it has grown significantly during the decades that we've been debating bringing casinos to the state. We have left thousands of people in harm's way for far too many years. Lives have been wrecked, roads to recovery and self sufficiency delayed for years, and we have eliminated the road of continued independence for hard-working people — all in these years of debate.
After more than 40 years of accounting gimmicks and fiscal risks to pass so-called balanced budgets and dozens of class action lawsuits, there is no excuse good enough to keep saying no to economic growth, new jobs and revenue.
We are tired of the fairy tale "we made some tough choices, but in the end we passed a responsible budget." We can't keep being the sacrificial lambs for legislative budget woes.
Say yes to casinos now. It may be a drop in the bucket to legislators or casino opponents who have the luxury of saying that, but to the rest of us it is an important step forward.
Diana Lacey is president of the State Employees Association/SEIU Local 1984.