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N.H. House votes to repeal education tax credit program, study ‘end of life decisions’

The effort to get rid of New Hampshire’s new education tax credit advanced yesterday as the Democratic-led House voted, 188-151, to repeal the scholarship program.

“Quite frankly, I feel that if we cannot adequately fund our public schools and we cannot adequately fund our charter schools, we should not be creating yet another program until we do the other programs properly,” said Rep. Lorrie Carey, a Boscawen Democrat.

The House also voted yesterday to create a committee to study legislation dealing with “end of life decisions,” grant civil immunity to gun owners whose firearms are stolen and used in a crime, and make the white potato New Hampshire’s official state vegetable.

The education tax credit was created by the Legislature last year, when Republicans held big majorities in both the House and the Senate.

The 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.

But Democrats won a majority in the House last year, and the Ways and Means Committee voted this month along party lines, 10-7, to recommend the full House repeal the program.

Concord Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said yesterday that the education tax credit raises fiscal, constitutional and other concerns.

“It does not make sense to continue a program to voluntarily decrease state revenue collection in business taxes,” she said. “We cannot ask our local communities to absorb any more loss of funding, and we should not continue a program for our children that so far has proven of no educational value.”

But Rep. Pam Tucker, a Greenland Republican, asked lawmakers to give the program more time.

“We’ve got to give it a chance to work,” Tucker said. “What we’re doing is, they’re having a knee-jerk reaction here to something that hasn’t even happened yet. We have over 400 children across the state . . . who have applied to this, and they’re relying on this to go to the school of their choice.”

After nearly 1½ hours of debate, the House voted, 188-151, to pass the repeal bill. Seven Republicans voted with 181 Democrats to kill the bill, while five Democrats voted with 146 Republicans in support of it.

The bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 majority. Two Republican senators voted against the program last year, but one of them, Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton, has said she’ll oppose the repeal bill.

“Today’s action by the House is premature, and as this bill moves to the Senate I will not support a repeal. . . . I believe we should allow the program and these applicants this opportunity before voting to repeal (a) program that has yet to even begin,” Stiles said yesterday in a statement.

That could leave the bill facing a 12-12 deadlock in the Senate.

Still, there are other efforts under way to rescind the education tax credit.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who opposes the program, included a provision repealing the credit in the two-year state budget proposal she submitted to the Legislature last week.

And 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 the program violates the state Constitution’s separation of church and state because it provides money to religious schools.

Supporters say the program is perfectly legal, and they point to an April 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared a similar program in Arizona did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

‘Death with dignity’

In other action yesterday, the House voted to create a committee to craft possible legislation dealing with “end of life decisions.” The bill passed on a 212-140 vote, and now goes to the Senate.

“This bill is about something that is going to happen to each and every one of us,” said Durham Democratic Rep. Marjorie Smith, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. “I hope it doesn’t come as a surprise, but at some point we are each going to reach the end of our lives.”

The bill, as originally filed, would establish a commission, including legislators and others, “to study death with dignity for persons suffering from a terminal condition.”

The legislation was amended by the House Judiciary Committee to become a study committee, comprising five representatives and three senators, to study legislation dealing with the more general topic of “end of life decisions.”

The committee would report by Nov. 1 on possible legislation to be introduced for next year. Its charge covers living wills, hospice care and other subjects, said Rep. Rick Watrous, a Concord Democrat.

“I don’t know what recommendations will come out of this committee. Nobody does at this point,” Watrous said. “But I ask my fellow representatives to please allow a committee to study this very important subject. If any legislation results, you can vote for or against it when you see what is proposed.”

But opponents said the legislation’s use of phrases like “death with dignity” or “end of life decisions” is just code for euthanasia.

“We have deep concerns that this bill . . . really has to do with its title, ‘death with dignity,’ and ultimately physician-assisted suicide,” said Rep. Joseph Hagan, a Chester Republican. “We believe . . . that this process is all a euphemism for state-sponsored, physician-assisted suicide, and that the study bill, study committee, would lead to this as a potential bill.”

Stolen-gun liability

The House yesterday ignored the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation to kill a bill granting civil immunity to anyone whose gun is stolen and then used in a crime.

“If someone enters my home and takes something without my permission, they have committed the crime, not me. I should not be held liable for the crime that was committed,” said Rep. Lenette Peterson, a Merrimack Republican. “I wasn’t holding the handgun at the time. . . . Gun owners should not be victimized twice.”

The House Judiciary Committee had recommended, on a 12-6 vote, that the full House kill the bill. But that motion was rejected on a 192-167 vote.

The House then voted, 211-151, to pass the bill.

Cost-saving suggestions

The House also passed a bill encouraging state employees to suggest ways to save money at state agencies. Under a two-year pilot program, employees could get 10 percent of the savings realized in the first year from their suggestions.

The House Executive Departments and Administration Committee had recommended killing the bill, but a motion to do so failed on a 179-179 vote. Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, cast a rare vote in support of the committee’s recommendation to kill the legislation. (The speaker usually doesn’t vote.)

The House then voted, 199-162, to pass the bill and send it to the Senate.

Potatoes, redistricting

The House voted, 276-75, to make the white potato the official state vegetable. The bill was pushed by a group of fourth-graders from Derry, which claims to be the site of the first potato planted in North America, in 1719.

The legislation now goes to the Senate.

The House also voted, 305-49, to kill a bill that would have reopened last year’s redistricting process to create separate House districts for the towns of Hudson and Pelham, which now share a single district.

Rep. Charlene Takesian, a Pelham Republican, asked the House to pass the bill because, she said, the map passed last year violates the state Constitution guarantee of separate districts for towns of a certain size.

But Hooksett Republican Rep. David Hess, the deputy minority leader, said the House is only allowed to redistrict once a decade.

“I’m sure all of us sympathize with the situation in Pelham. All of us wish we could address their concerns,” Hess said. “But for both legal and practical reasons, we cannot.”

A second, more sweeping redistricting bill also was filed this year, but hasn’t yet come to the House floor for a vote.

Languages, LGC, taxes

The House also voted to kill a bill that would have established a committee to study teaching a second language to children starting in kindergarten, 258-97.

A bill to bring back straight-ticket voting, a ballot option eliminated by the state in 2007, was killed on a 285-36 vote.

After an extended debate, the House voted, 277-83, to table a bill that would allow non-lawyers to represent others in court.

And on a 192-161 vote, the House killed a bill that would have reduced, and in five years repealed, the state’s business enterprise tax. Seven Republicans voted with 185 Democrats to kill the bill, while 152 Republicans and nine Democrats voted in support of it.

The House did pass a bill to create a committee to study possible changes to the state law regulating the Local Government Center, which operates public risk pools, and killed a bill that would have allowed counties to establish a 1 percent income tax. Both actions were part of the consent agenda, which was adopted on a voice vote.

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

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