Editorial: Deadbeat state deserves to be sued
We harbor no illusions about the demise of the latest casino bill rejected by the House. No silver stake through the heart can kill the desire to fund government on the backs of others, which is what the casino debate has always been about, not construction jobs or tourist visits, but a fool’s gold way to enjoy services without paying for them. The campaign to expand gambling won’t stop.
The House did the right thing, as it has in the past and should again, when faced with yet another casino or slot parlor scheme. But with just weeks to go before a state budget must be passed, the question is, what now? Even more downshifting of state responsibilities to cities, towns and counties? A further reduction in already inadequate services?
The improving economy has state revenue from some sources exceeding expectations, but the Senate’s budget does not restore cuts to higher education and social services. Its Republican majority is unalterably opposed to any revenue-raising measure. The Senate’s unsound decision to reject an increase in the state tax on gasoline and cigarettes further darkens the picture.
The rejection of expanded gambling should signal lawmakers that it’s time to take a serious look at the needs of New Hampshire’s people and the structural deficit in its revenue structure that makes it impossible to meet those needs.
We harbor no illusions about that either. If lawmakers move to reform that revenue system to make it sound, fair and flexible, it will be because they’ve been forced to do so.
Several lawsuits in progress could push them forward, one over substandard conditions at the women’s prison in Goffstown, another by hospitals unfairly taxed out of hundreds of millions of dollars, and a third over the disgraceful and cruel near-collapse of services for the mentally ill.
Because building a new women’s prison can be bonded and money is cheap, that suit could disappear if the governor and lawmakers agree to construct one. But a trio of suits could be restored if the city of Dover, and more than a score of other communities shortchanged by the formula used to determine state education aid, decide to litigate.
We urge them to do so, but not alone. Property owners in every city and town are paying far more than they should because the Legislature has not met its constitutional requirement to pay for an adequate education for all children. Despite progress made thanks to decades of lawsuits over state education funding and the landmark Claremont Supreme Court rulings, gross disparities in the tax burdens borne by property owners in wealthy and poor communities persist, along with disparities in the resources devoted to education.
The education funding system has always been a sham, the level of funding deemed necessary to provide an adequate education laughable. Funding never exceeded half the actual cost, and at roughly $3,450, it now represents about one-third of the state average cost and one-quarter to one-fifth of what some districts spend.
A joint suit by school districts harmed by the artificial caps put on state school aid increases, as well as by districts that struggle to educate their children because state aid is inadequate, could force lawmakers to face reality. The state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, its refusal to adequately fund mental health unconscionable, its taxation of hospitals wrong, its treatment of female inmates unjust, and its tax system antiquated, regressive and unfair. So go ahead and sue.