Key senator comes out against bill to repeal N.H. education tax credit program

Last modified: 2/1/2013 12:01:49 AM
Supporters of New Hampshire’s new education tax credit program got a big boost yesterday when a key senator came out against a repeal bill being considered by the Democratic-controlled House, signaling the legislation could face a deadlock in the Senate.

“You have no data. You have absolutely no data to make any changes. . . . When you have the data, then you can make a decision whether or not it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican who voted against the program last year but now opposes repealing it, told the House Ways and Means Committee.

The program got under way Jan. 1, and already 270 children have applied for scholarships to help pay tuition for private schools and out-of-district public schools, or to defray the cost of home schooling, said Kate Baker, executive director of the Network for Educational Opportunity, the only scholarship organization established so far under the law.

Those children come from families that are, on average, larger and poorer than the state median, Baker said.

“I’ve heard from families really willing to make incredible sacrifices for their children. . . . Let us keep our promise to these 270 low-income children that have already applied for scholarships,” she said.

But critics say the program will divert the state’s limited resources from public schools to private schools, including religious schools. It will benefit only a small number of students, they say, and may be unconstitutional.

“As a legislator deliberating education policy, I believe that my major responsibility is to make sure that New Hampshire’s children have access to an excellent . . . public education, and that any resources we have should be dedicated to strengthening and improving our public schools,” said Concord Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, who introduced the repeal bill.

The Ways and Means Committee heard nearly 4½ hours of testimony at yesterday’s public hearing as it considers the bill to repeal the tax-credit program, which was created last June when the then-Republican-controlled Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto.

Under the program, businesses can receive credits against their state tax bills if they donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations. Those organizations then provide scholarships – averaging $2,500 per student per year – for tuition at private schools or public schools in a different district, or $625 to help defray home-schooling expenses.

Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican and the deputy GOP leader in the House, said all families – rich and poor – should have choices when it comes to educating their children. The Supreme Court, he noted, has said education is a fundamental right of all New Hampshire’s citizens.

“How can you exercise a right meaningfully if you don’t have choices?” he asked.

Stiles’s announcement yesterday that she’ll oppose the repeal bill is significant because she was one of two Senate Republicans to side with Democrats against the tax-credit program last year.

With Republicans now holding a slimmer, 13-11 majority in the Senate, Stiles could be the decisive vote on the repeal bill if it passes the House. The other Republican who voted against the program in 2012, Sen. Bob Odell of Lempster, has indicated he’d vote against it again. (He told the Monitor in January, “I’m pretty consistent.”)

In the case of a 12-12 tie, the repeal bill would fail to pass for lack of a majority. The Senate’s rules provide no mechanism for breaking a tie, according to spokeswoman Carole Alfano.

The tax-credit program is also under attack in the courts. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit Jan. 9 seeking to block the program, saying it diverts public money to schools that teach religion and discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of the state Constitution.

But supporters say the money never passes through government hands, and so it doesn’t violate the Constitution – an argument supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in April 2011, which upheld a similar program in Arizona by ruling that a tax credit is different than a government expenditure.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, said he is saddened to see fellow Republicans support the tax-credit program despite what he described as its obvious constitutional issues. He is a sponsor of the repeal bill.

“There was a time when we did not say the ends justify the means. My fellow Republicans are saying they will break any law, break any constitutional provision, to get what they want,” Vaillancourt said. “I will never be part of this.”

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

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