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House panel votes along party lines to advance bill repealing N.H.’s new education tax credit program

A bill to repeal New Hampshire’s new education tax credit program advanced yesterday in the Democratic-controlled House, moving on a party-line vote out of the Ways and Means Committee.

On a 10-7 vote, the committee recommended the full House pass the bill, which would repeal the program enacted last year by the then-GOP-controlled Legislature.

All 10 “yes” votes came from Democrats, while all seven “no” votes came from Republicans.

Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat and chairwoman of the tax-writing panel, said the program lacks accountability, creates administrative costs, may not attract sufficient interest from businesses to be successful and might be found unconstitutional.

“I believe that this program ought to be repealed now, and not given a chance to figure out whether it is going to be able to work or not,” Almy said.

The repeal bill now goes to the House floor for debate. But even if it passes the House, where Democrats hold a 221-179 majority, it faces a possible deadlock in the Senate, where Republicans have a 13-11 edge.

Hampton Sen. Nancy Stiles, one of two Senate Republicans who voted against the program last year, says she’ll vote against the repeal bill because she doesn’t believe the Legislature should reverse previous laws without hard data that they don’t work. The other, Sen. Bob Odell of Lempster, has indicated he’ll support a repeal bill.

That could leave the bill facing a 12-12 tie in the upper chamber, and without a majority, it would fail to pass.

The tax credit program allows businesses to reduce their state tax bills by donating money to nonprofit groups, which then provide scholarships to help families pay to send their children to private schools or out-of-district public schools, or help defray the cost of home-schooling. The scholarships average $2,500 per student per year for tuition at private schools or public schools, or $625 for home-schoolers.

The program got under way Jan. 1. Supporters turned out in force Jan. 31 for the House Ways and Means Committee’s public hearing on the repeal bill, a meeting that lasted nearly 4½ hours.

Hooksett Rep. David Hess, the deputy Republican House leader, said yesterday that the program needs time to work.

“We cannot afford to have a reputation of ying-yanging taxpayers, students, parents of students, by constantly changing every six months or every eight months once a policy is established,” Hess said. “I think this Legislature decided not to do that on the issue of gay marriage last year, and I think this issue and this subject matter deserve equal consideration and deference.”

The House voted last March, 211-116, to kill a bill that would have repealed the same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature in 2009.

The tax credit program has also been challenged in court. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit last month claiming it violates the state Constitution’s separation of church and state because it provides money to religious schools. Supporters say similar programs in other states have been found constitutional.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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