×

Capital Beat: Republicans tussle over school choice legislation

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ



Monitor staff
Saturday, April 22, 2017

Once again the devil is in the details for Republicans in control of the State House, and this time their disagreements over a major school choice bill may kick the issue to next year.

Party members broadly agree parents should be able to use state-raised money to send their kids to private schools. Even Jeb Bush endorses the policy. He wrote in the Monitor recently that the education savings accounts are a “natural fit” for the state’s families.

But a clash among House GOP members over whether religious schools should be included is threatening to sink the proposal this year.

Conservative representatives say they should. But, heeding warnings about possible legal challenges, some Republican leaders want sectarian schools excluded.

“I want to make sure we are doing something that is not going to have a real problem with constitutionality and costing the state money to defend something like that,” said Republican Rep. Rick Ladd, chairman of the House Education Committee.

The problems are too big to iron out quickly, members said. And instead of sending a half-baked proposal to a near certain death in the Republican-led House, the committee will likely hold the bill over the summer for more work.

“I would love to see this get through this year, but I am not sure we can find the votes to make that happen,” said Republican Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a committee member who wants religious schools included and plans to make a motion to retain the bill. “We have started building a large grassroots support for the concept of education savings accounts.”

The retention isn’t poised to be a high-profile political loss for the GOP. While members say Gov. Chris Sununu’s staff are working behind the scenes on the education savings accounts, the first-term Republican is putting most of his political capital into a full-day kindergarten bill. And he even voiced some reservations last week with the voucher-like bill, saying in a clip on New Hampshire Public Radio “you don’t want to jump in too big too fast.”

Still the disagreement reveals the depth of division among House Republicans.

After the chamber’s conservatives helped sink the state budget bill earlier this month, Speaker Shawn Jasper dismissed questions about whether the party could unite. He predicted its members would still come together on policy issues.

“It’s a matter of ideas and thoughts,” he said then. “Regardless of whether they want to support House leadership or not, they will support the idea that we all support. So I am not worried about those issues.”

But on the so-called “education freedom savings accounts,” party agreement has yet to be found. It’s not yet clear whether more work over the summer will get members there.

Losing bet

As Kenny Rogers wisely sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em – Know when to fold ‘em.”

Casino Free New Hampshire is advising Sen. Lou D’Allesandro to do the latter, after the Manchester Democrat’s expanded gambling bill met a crushing defeat from House members.

In a whopping 19-1 vote last week, the House Ways and Means Committee recommended killing the bill.

“This is a historic vote,” Rep. Patty Lovejoy said in a statement. “I don’t ever remember the Ways and Means Committee taking as unified a position in opposition to casino gambling as we saw today.”

The bill is scheduled to come up to the House floor for a full vote on May 4.

Union takes a stance

The largest union of state employees is wading into the political debate over Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. The State Employees Association sent out a newsletter urging members to call their representatives and oppose a last-minute bill giving Edelblut authority to restructure the department.

Critics call the bill a power grab, but sponsor Sen. John Reagan says it’s a house-keeping measure to give the new commissioner flexibility. The SEA points to 1997, when the Legislature gave the then -head of health and human services broad ability to reshape the department. Fifty-eight people were laid off, while others were demoted, according to the union’s blog post.

“The bottom line is that this kind of drastic overhaul requires thoughtful consideration and strong knowledge of the agency,” SEA President Rich Gulla wrote. “With zero experience and only being on the job for a couple months, Commissioner Edelblut couldn’t even have learned everyone’s name yet, let alone how the agency works.”

A hearing on the proposal is set for Tuesday.

War of words

Two familiar faces in New Hampshire will be debating in Pennsylvania this week. Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is taking on former Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley in a the “Great Debate” put on by Penn State College Republicans and Penn State College Democrats. Ayotte certainly wins the popularity contest in New Hampshire. The Republican lost her U.S. Senate seat by a slim, 1,000-vote margin, but O’Malley won only 667 votes in the state’s presidential primary.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)