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Constitutional ed funding question fails

Last modified: 6/7/2012 12:00:00 AM
With the support of just two Democrats and too few Republicans, the Legislature failed to pass a constitutional amendment on education funding yesterday that sought to take control of school spending from the courts and give it to lawmakers.

The amendment had the support of Democratic Gov. John Lynch but not his party. After the vote, House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, blamed Lynch for failing to get enough Democratic votes to pass the measure. Also missing, however, was sufficient support from Republicans, who hold a super-majority in both chambers.

"We needed a bipartisan solution . . . that Gov. Lynch didn't provide," O'Brien said. "Gov. John Lynch just couldn't fulfill his side of the compromise."

Lynch responded in kind in a written statement.

"To make progress on an important public policy issue such as this, all sides must work together, and that can only happen if an element of trust exists," the statement said. "Clearly, there is a fundamental divide among House members on this issue, not only between the two parties, but also within the Republican caucus. Cooperation and trust are fundamental to building the coalitions needed to pass an amendment such as this one. Unfortunately, those essential qualities were missing from today's debate."

Historically, yesterday's vote was par for the course. Last year was the first time the House passed a school funding amendment in 80-some tries since the state Supreme Court's Claremont decisions of the 1990s requiring the state to fund an adequate education for children in all school districts.

The amendment passed the Senate yesterday 17-6, with the help of Democratic Sen. Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester, who opposed the amendment but believed it should go to voters.

It also passed the House, 224-144, but was 13 votes shy of the required three-fifths majority. The only House Democrat to vote for it was Rep. Peter Ramsey of Manchester.

At the request of Rep. Paul Mirski, an Enfield Republican, the House took a second vote with virtually no change: 224-141.

All four gubernatorial candidates weighed in on the vote.

Democrats Maggie Hassen and Jackie Cilley praised the defeat of the amendment. Republicans Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith said the opposite.

"I am disappointed that (the amendment) fell just short in the House," Lamontagne said in a written statement. "After years of grappling with the Claremont decisions, we have missed a historic opportunity to give the voters of New Hampshire an opportunity to be directly heard on this issue."

Smith said, if elected, he would continue to push for a similar amendment to give the Legislature total control of education funding. But he'd also focus on improving school choice by pushing for a voucher program, he said.

"A constitutional amendment is necessary and we must not give up on making it a reality, but let's not lose sight of the fact that it's only a starting point," Smith said in a written statement.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, led support for the amendment in the Senate, saying it would allow the state to target aid to the neediest districts and continue its existing responsibility to set education standards.

He also said it would change the litmus test in court if anyone challenged the state's funding for education. Rather than the state having to prove its support for education was sufficient, anyone who challenged the support would have to show it wasn't, Bradley said.

"(This amendment) returns the courts to their traditional roles of opining on the constitutionality of laws," Bradley said. "But it forces and allows us to make those tough choices about funding, setting priorities and adopting policy. That is what we are elected to do."

The real fight, though, was in the House.

Mirski said the state Supreme Court has been "unethical" in its interpretations of the state's responsibility for schools under the state Constitution.

He and other Republicans disagree that the state's obligation to "cherish" education means the state should pay for education, oversee it or take education tax dollars from wealthy communities and give them to poorer communities.

But while they share misgivings about current education funding, they could not agree yesterday on how to change it.

Rep. Andrew Manuse, a Derry Republican, opposed the amendment because he doesn't believe the state should shift tax dollars between communities to pay for education. That introduces an element of "socialism," he said.

"What we have here, however, gives us the responsibly to permanently maintain a system of public education," Manuse said. "I think there is place for public education as a safety net and for some to choose it if they want. But if someone does not want to choose public education, they should be able to take dollars they worked hard for and spend it on their own children on a different school."

Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, wanted an amendment that redefined the word cherish, so the courts couldn't interpret it as they have. Rep. Tony Soltani, an Epsom Republican, also voted against the amendment, saying it "enshrines" the state Supreme Court's decision in the Claremont case into state law.

"It's Claremont on crack," he said.

Joining them in opposing the amendment was Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat. He echoed others in his party in expressing fear the amendment would allow the state to reduce its existing support for education.

But some Republicans, even those with misgivings about the amendment's wording, supported it because they believed the much-beleaguered question of education funding needed to go to voters.

"The Constitution tells us we are supposed to cherish education, but we are not . . . clear on what the people who voted (for that wording) . . . meant," said Rep. George Lambert, a Litchfield Republican. "Let the voters decide what they meant. It's time for (voters) to deliver that message to us, to the (state) Supreme Court and to the government. It's our job to educate (voters) and to give them a choice.

"Everyone who says a vote today is a vote to enshrine Claremont is denying our citizens the opportunity to engage in the dialogue," Lambert said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com.)


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