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Lynch's ed funding plan rejected

The New Hampshire House yesterday rejected the governor's version of a constitutional amendment to let lawmakers target education funding to needy communities, a vote that showed the difficulty of finding common language for an idea with broad support.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate, as well as Democratic Gov. John Lynch, agree the Constitution should be amended so the state can send more education aid to poor communities than to wealthy ones. The Senate and the House have each passed a version of an amendment but have not acted on the other's proposal. In October, Lynch released the language of an amendment he could support. O'Brien responded by scheduling a vote on the amendment for yesterday, timing that Democrats argued did not allow for serious consideration.

Yesterday morning, a motion to pass the amendment failed with the support of only 114 members, all Republicans, and the opposition of 264 members. The governor's proposal was substituted for the Senate amendment proposal, so both measures were voted down. The House proposal is still before the Senate, where it can be amended.

In a statement after the vote, Lynch said his amendment would affirm the state's responsibility for education while allowing the state to target aid to communities in need.

'Amending our Constitution is serious work, and I would have expected this amendment to go through the normal hearing process, with an opportunity for careful review and public input,' Lynch said. 'Unfortunately, this was not the case.'

Lynch said he is willing to work with anyone who wants to pass an amendment that strengthens education in the state.

Speaking to members before the vote, House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said the negotiations had stalled as the Senate and House waited for language that Lynch could approve. Bettencourt said the process needed to move forward to give voters time to understand a proposed amendment before they see it on the ballot.

'What we are seeking to do today is to get a sense of where this House is in relation to the governor's language on a constitutional amendment,' he said. 'It would be foolhardy, particularly from the majority party's perspective, to attempt to move forward with a constitutional amendment without the governor's support.'

Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat, objected, saying the House had not given the amendment the consideration needed before a vote. A hearing on the amendment was held last Tuesday, but Richardson said few people attended and no vote was taken.

'We are being asked today to amend the Constitution of the State of New Hampshire,' he said. 'The choices are either to amend the Constitution on the fly, by floor amendment, with no thoughtful consideration by the committee or this body, or we are being asked to defeat an amendment for purely political reasons.'

Richardson, who said he has supported an education funding amendment for years, said Lynch had intended to allow time for debate about his amendment before a vote took place.

'It was not the governor's intention or expectation that the House and Senate would simply roll over and adopt the language he proposed,' he said.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Republican from Weare, urged lawmakers to pass the amendment. Kurk said the proposed amendment may not be perfect, but it presented a rare chance to allow the state to target its education money to the communities that most need it.

'Opportunities to amend the Constitution are rare,' Kurk said. 'This is one of them. If we let this go, it is very likely that an amendment, even should one emerge from the Legislature, will not prevail in the public, because there will be no champion such as our governor to advance its cause.'

The Legislature can propose a constitutional amendment with three-fifths support from the House and Senate, but it must be ratified by two-thirds of voters at a biennial election. The governor does not sign or veto an amendment, but he could rally public support for its passage.

The state Supreme Court has found the state has a constitutional obligation to pay the cost of an adequate education for every public schoolchild. Lawmakers have proposed many amendments designed to bypass the 1997 Claremont ruling, but none passed the House until March.

Lynch's proposed amendment would give lawmakers the full discretion to determine state funding for public education, but it also says they have a responsibility to establish educational standards and mitigate local disparities. The House version of the amendment says lawmakers would have full discretion, but not responsibility, for determining standards and mitigating local disparities, along with discretion to determine education funding.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)

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