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Editorial: Just say no to constitutional amendment

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and returning House Speaker-elect Terie Norelli shouldn’t let 2013 be a Groundhog Year for the New Hampshire Legislature, a year when lawmakers waste time debating, yet again, deservedly lost causes. One of them is the campaign by out-of-state forces to make New Hampshire a right-to-work state; another is the effort to repeal gay marriage. Hassan should nip those in the bud with threats of a gubernatorial veto, and Norelli should signal an intent to kill the efforts legislatively.

That leaves the granddaddy of lost causes and bad ideas: the campaign to amend New Hampshire’s Constitution to relieve the state of its responsibility to fund the education of every child. Last week, in conversations with Monitor reporter Molly A.K. Connors, several lawmakers said they expect that yet another attempt will be made.

“I think there is an opportunity to thrash this out. And who knows,” Wolfeboro Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley told Connors. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

That’s not quite true. The House has, over the past two decades, tried and failed to pass an amendment some 80 times, including an attempt last year. Mounting that effort again, especially considering the reversal of political poles that gave Democrats a majority in the House, would be a colossal waste of time that could be spent to improve an economy that’s in danger of falling behind that of other New England states.

Amendment proponents rightly fear that Claremont, Pittsfield, Allenstown, Franklin and Lisbon, the original members of the coalition that sued the state over its inadequate school funding policy, and perhaps other towns, will go back to court if the state’s paltry $3,400 per student contribution to the cost of a student’s education isn’t increased. The answer, they believe, is to amend the Constitution to allow aid to be “targeted” – which is another way of saying giving lots of state money to some school districts and little or none to others. The hardliners among them also want no judicial oversight over the state’s school funding decisions.

New Hampshire residents know from experience what will happen if court oversight over education funding is eliminated. The Legislature will downshift as much of the cost of public education as it can get away with to local taxpayers. Property taxes will skyrocket in well-off communities which will put living in them even further out of reach and work to segregate the state economically. Aid will flow to communities which, by dint of their numbers in the Legislature, have more political power and away from small towns. The inequitable tax burden – outlawed by the court as unconstitutional – that saw the owner of property in one town pay a tax rate several times higher than the owner of a property of equal value in another town to fund public education will become legal.

Bradley, like many lawmakers seeking an amendment, as well as Gov. John Lynch for that matter, don’t want to see the creation of so-called donor towns, communities that because of their property wealth pay taxes that help support the education of children in property-poor towns, but donor towns are a fiction. Public education is a state responsibility because everyone in every community benefits from the education of every child. A constitutional amendment to shift the cost of public education from the state to local taxpayers will never win the vote of two-thirds of the electorate. Lawmakers should focus instead on how to stave off a potential lawsuit by increasing education funding.

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