CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a critical need to maintain or boost funding for schools, mental health treatment, child care scholarships and other programs, advocates told House budget writers Tuesday.
In past years, hundreds of members of the public have packed into Representatives’ Hall to offer feedback to House Finance Committee members as they work on the next two-year state budget. Because of the pandemic, they instead offered testimony by phone or video Tuesday, with many opposing proposed cuts they said would hurt already struggling programs and people.
Among the most vocal advocates were those pushing to maintain funding for a program that helps working families afford child care.
Jackie Cowell, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Early Learning NH, said there was a waitlist for the program during the last recession, and many parents had to turn down jobs or leave jobs because they couldn’t afford child care without the assistance. She worries that will happen again.
“We really believe with the pandemic ... there could be very many more that are qualifying,” said Jackie Cowell, director of Early Learning NH, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We ask you to have some kind of mechanism in place to make sure we don’t have a waitlist.”
Christina Darling, a single mother of two young boys in Nashua, said without the child care scholarship, she would return a “terrifying loop” of struggling to find child care so she could work, and working enough to pay for the care. Her sister, meanwhile, recently left her job as a nursing assistant, because child care was too expensive. Instead, she applied for other state assistance.
“I pride myself in setting the best possible example I can for my boys by showing them what a really strong, independent woman looks like,” she said. “I ask that you put yourselves in the minds and shoes of your essential workers who rely on child care scholarships so that moms like me and my sister can build savings, reach our financial goals and pull our families up and out of poverty permanently.”
Others pressed lawmakers to increase funding for school districts, that face significant reductions due to artificially low attendance numbers during the pandemic and issues surrounding the number of students eligible for free and reduced cost meals. Leslie Want, vice chair of the Manchester School Board, said the state’s largest city is facing a $7.8 million loss. Retirement costs also are going up, leaving the city of Nashua in a similar bind, said Mayor Jim Donchess.
“This is the worst time to hit school districts across the state with a funding gap because the challenges caused by the pandemic are really unprecedented,” he said.
Rep. Ken Weyler, the committee chairman, said the next round of federal virus relief aid could help schools.
“This is March 16. This budget won’t be completed until some time in June. There is some possibility of more (federal) funds coming in,” said Weyler, R-Kingston. “And the revenue picture improves... then we’ll have more figures to work with, but we’re stuck with the figures we got in February.”
Joseph Lascaze, meanwhile, advocated for restoring funding for educational programs within the state’s corrections department, as well as transitional housing for inmates leaving the system. He described his 13 years of incarceration before he was paroled in 2019.
“The education department provides an environment where people learn to rehabilitate their mode of thinking, and it’s a place where hope is instilled to see opportunities available through education,” he said.
Parents and advocates for people with developmental disabilities urged lawmakers to fully fund home care services and other supports, and numerous people emphasized the need to fund behavioral health services, particularly for children.
The state recently hit record numbers for the most visible symptom of the state’s mental health crisis: patients waiting for days and weeks in emergency rooms for inpatient psychiatric beds. On Feb. 17, there were 89 children and adults waiting in emergency departments, said Ken Norton, director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with significant increases in stress, anxiety and depression, across all ages though particularly impacting children and youth,” he said. “We anticipate that the mental health effects of the pandemic will continue for some time to come, and will impact children, parents, older adults and across many sectors of our workforce.”