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New year brings new school funding fight

Another year in the Legislature, another school-funding constitutional amendment battle.
/ Source: The Union Leader

Another year in the Legislature, another school-funding constitutional amendment battle. Three bills have been filed in the Senate to get the ball rolling this session.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Foster filed one. He said he can't see how the state can manage efficiently without one. Minority Leader Ted Gatsas and Sen. Joe Kenney also filed amendments.

Foster said his bill is much like the one that fell one vote short of Senate passage in June. That version left it up to the Legislature to define minimum education standards, set funding levels and target school aid, "provided that every school district receives a reasonable share of the state funds."

Gov. John Lynch said last week that targeting funds is the only fair way to administer state aid.

Amendment language is still up in the air. Simple placement of a comma can change entire meanings, let alone insertion of a seemingly innocuous word like "reasonable." Foster and Gatsas have been working on common language to shape a bill that would pass with room to spare.

"Ideally, we'll get some large super-majority of the Senate. ... It's important to have that to give it some momentum," Foster said.

The first Senate vote last year, taken in April, passed an amendment by a 15-9 margin, exactly the three-fifths majority it needed in the Senate. Language in that version said the state would cover a minimum of 50 percent of education costs. The House axed that provision, but still it could only muster 108 votes, with 253 against. The Senate effort to revive an amendment failed in June.

Gatsas said he hopes both parties can get together on a single version this year.

"I think it's important that we find a method that allows us to target," he said. "It's clear we need one, it's clearly the right thing for the state and the right thing for education in New Hampshire."

Kenney's bill would return the state to the kind of school funding it had before Supreme Court Claremont rulings put the state on the spot. School districts would raise most of their money through local property taxes and the state would help those that need an extra hand.

"It would take the courts out of it," Kenney said. "Most communities did not have a problem pre-Claremont, just the communities that bought the lawsuits."

What happens in the House if the Senate passes something? After stomping on the amendment in June, the House tried to drive a stake through its heart by voting for "indefinite postponement," meant to block a return of the issue until 2009.

Speaker of the House Terie Norelli said House rules state that if a bill is "substantially similar" to one that was killed or indefinitely postponed, it takes a two-thirds vote for it to come up again.

"It doesn't matter whether it is new legislation or something that comes from the Senate, we are still bound by the 'substantially similar' language," she said.

If Foster and Gatsas get together and bring enough of their colleagues, Norelli and her staff will have an interesting call to make.

SCHOOL SPENDING

A common estimate has been that a committee on education costs will call for an extra $400 million in state spending. That would bring state aid to about half of total education spending in the state. The estimate might be off.

Senate President Sylvia Larsen, who is on the committee, said last week, "I don't think there will be a request for huge sums of money immediately."

So, $400 million?

"I don't predict it will be," she said. "I think the committee is looking to spend the state's money wisely."

OUTFOXED

Forget the idea of a presidential debate sponsored by the state Republican Party. GOP chairman Fergus Cullen lost a game of debate chicken with WMUR and ABC this month.

Cullen wanted a GOP debate on the Fox network on Sunday, Jan. 6. WMUR and ABC were locked into Saturday, Jan. 5, to host Democrats and Republicans in back-to-back debates. Cullen had to convince candidates to either withdraw from the MUR event, or debate on two out of five days between Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. MUR had the edge. A Sunday night debate would not give enough damage-control time to candidates who exhibit symptoms of foot-in-mouth disease on national TV.

Cullen threw in the towel last week, saying of the MUR debates, "I suspect they will be the last of the traditional debates with all the candidates."

He still plans a GOP brunch at the Hampshire Hills facility in Milford on Jan. 6, and wants to organize some kind of town-hall forum for candidates able to attend.

UNWELCOME

The Division of Motor Vehicles office in Merrimack might be moving. Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli would like to see it go south to the state Welcome Center at Exit 6 in Nashua.

Retail strip owners don't exactly welcome the DMV, Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes told the Executive Council last week.

With all the traffic they generate, they take up too much parking and leave other retail tenants scrambling for spaces. The DMV is also having trouble renewing its lease in Lebanon.

SEEING THE RESULTS

All the bad St. Patrick's Day jokes and good-natured political barbs did some good this month. Lobbyist Jim Demers hosted the sixth annual holiday party at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth, funded with money raised at his annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast roast.

Donations helped to buy a couple of rolling computer fun centers with HDTV screens that allow kids to play games at their beds, and to hire a magician.

Professional firefighters deputized the young patients as members of the CHaD fire department, Demers said.

Parents benefit, too, with $5,000 in gasoline cards to ease the cost of constant round trips visiting their sick children.

Among big names at the party were Gov. Lynch and his wife Dr. Susan Lynch, Sen. Bob Clegg and Rep. Sharon Nordgren.

CONFLICTING REPORTS

The Center for Responsible Lending takes issue with a report on payday lending out of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that was cited here last week.

The Fed report said the rate of bounced checks rose after payday lending was banned in Georgia and North Carolina.

The CRL cites a recent University of North Carolina study that found payday borrowers found other options when payday shops closed, "such as working out delayed payments with creditors; borrowing from family, friends, or employers; dipping into savings; or delaying a purchase for a short period of time."

Expect more conflicting reports as lawmakers draw closer to a vote on a payday lending regulation bill next month.

HEALTH CAMPAIGN HAT TRICK

The Divided We Fail campaign on health care and financial security has done something usually left to Mom and apple pie: it got the endorsement of the state's two congressmen, the Executive Council and the entire New Hampshire Senate.

AARP New Hampshire state director Kelly Clark said, "The longer we wait, the harder it will be to fix these problems. Access to affordable, quality health care and life-long financial security are not Democratic or Republican issues, they are American issues."

The pledge each official signed was to work in a bipartisan way, "to make access to affordable, quality health care and life-long financial security top domestic priorities," she said.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire for Health Care has released its analysis of health plans from each of the presidential candidates from each party.

It does not rank the plans, but lays out summaries of them as a guide to voters, NHHC director John Thyng said.

The group, part of SEIU's Americans for Health Care project, mailed the guides to 70,000 New Hampshire voters who have pledged to make health care access the issue on which they will judge candidates.

The report is also at NHHC's Web site, www.nhforhealthcare.org.

Tom Fahey is the State House bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.