O'Brien asks for Dem support

Last modified: 3/17/2012 12:00:00 AM
House Speaker Bill O'Brien called on the governor and other Democratic leaders yesterday to help him pass a constitutional amendment on education funding, telling reporters he doesn't have the votes within the House's dominant Republican caucus to pass language supported by the Senate.

Republicans hold nearly a 3-to-1 majority in the House, and last year "threaded the needle" to pass a proposed amendment out of the chamber for the first time in 80 tries, O'Brien said. But the Republicans in the Senate came back with a different version of the amendment, backed by Gov. John Lynch, that only found favor with 54 House members in an unsuccessful vote this week.

Now, as Senate and House leaders hope to reach a compromise in a committee of conference, O'Brien said Democrats have to step up for the House to achieve the 239 votes needed to pass a well-received amendment.

"That truly is going to require Gov. Lynch to come forward and not just say he is behind this as a solution but that he is working for that solution," O'Brien said. "It is helping us reach across the aisle . . . and making sure that members of his party who are in the Legislature come back to us, reach back to us, and say, 'Yes indeed, we'll help you put together that 60 percent majority.' "

Lynch and Republican lawmakers have long desired a constitutional amendment that would undo a Supreme Court ruling and allow lawmakers to target state money to needy school districts. Many Democrats have been cool to the idea out of fear that the amendment would allow lawmakers to reduce funding for education, or not fund it at all.

"Let's face it," O'Brien said, the 60 percent majority is "going to have to be in the middle of the House of Representatives. It's going to have to be 60 percent that represent really the moderates on both sides who will come together in achieving what we all know we need."

The House consists of 293 Republicans and 104 Demo-crats. If enough Republicans got behind the language supported by Lynch and the Republican-controlled Senate, O'Brien could pass the amendment without Democratic support. And unlike a bill, which Lynch can sign or veto, the governor has no formal say on a constitutional amendment, which must earn a three-fifths majority in both houses before it is placed on the ballot in November, where it must then be supported by two-thirds of voters. Due to his popularity, however, Lynch's support is still seen as critical at the ballot box in order to persuade 67 percent of voters to support the amendment.

"We can't go to the voters of New Hampshire and say here's the Republican solution, or here's the Democratic solution. We have to say we came together as two parties," O'Brien said. The Lynch-backed amendment passed the Senate with the support of 16 out of 19 Republicans and one out of five Democrats.

A message left with the House Democratic office went unanswered yesterday. Given O'Brien's plea for bipartisanship, he was asked why no Democrats were named to the House negotiation team for the committee of conference. O'Brien said he appointed Democratic Rep. Robert Foose of New London as an alternate on the committee.

"There is a tradition - it's not a tradition, it's really a requirement - in the House, that if you're going to be on a committee of conference, you have voted for the House position," O'Brien said. House Republican Leader D.J. Bettencourt of Salem said the only Democrat who voted last year to pass the House amendment was Rep. Dick Patten of Concord.

That amendment, passed on a 252-113 vote, did not assert the Legislature's "responsibility" in education funding, which Lynch has said must be included in any language that wins his approval.

The Senate passed its version last month including the word "responsibility," and Lynch stood with Senate leaders afterward in support. Lynch's spokesman, Colin Manning, said yesterday in response to O'Brien's challenge that "the governor has been a very vocal and public proponent of a constitutional amendment."

"If the speaker can't get the votes in the House to pass this amendment, that would be unfortunate," Manning said.

Prior to the House vote this week, Rep. Paul Mirski, an Enfield Republican, condemned the Senate amendment's use of the word "responsibility" to set reasonable standards for education and mitigate local funding disparities. The word would put the fight over education funding back in the court system, Mirski said, because the Legislature could be seen as shirking its responsibility depending on how the courts felt it met those "totally subjective" requirements.

Bettencourt said yesterday members of his caucus have indicated that the word "responsibility" might not be a deal-breaker.

"What I hear is that the word 'responsibility' in and of itself is not the problem, it's the placement of where 'responsibility' is," Bettencourt said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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