Capital Beat: School vouchers still in the mix thanks to amendment

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Saturday, May 05, 2018

It wasn’t quite the 11th hour, but it was close. Late into the night Thursday, running up against a legislative deadline, Senate Republicans threw a Hail Mary. Senators tacked on an amendment restoring a “school voucher” program to an unrelated bill, House Bill 1636, minutes before the Senate adjourned for the evening – and hours after the House had seemingly stopped it for the session.

Now, a bill originally intended to create a modest study committee into teacher preparedness has grown to include one of the broadest state education initiatives in recent years. And this month, staring down a skeptical House and a parliamentary minefield, Senate Republicans and Gov. Chris Sununu are pushing this vessel back out to sea.

For Sununu, it’s a high-stakes gamble with an enticing potential pay-off. As far back as November, the governor has been pressing for the program, a relatively-new proposal to allow per-pupil state adequacy funds to be transferred directly to parents interested in withdrawing their children from public school and exploring private or parochial options. As it entered the House, the bill, Senate Bill 193, suffered setbacks here and cuts there, but Sununu continued to rally behind it, hoping to capitalize on a national campaign to expand “school choice” initiatives.

On May 14, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a major proponent of that campaign, is set to headline a New Hampshire Republican Party’s “Spring to Victory” dinner fundraiser;
New Hampshire’s voucher efforts could take center stage.

But the road to a comeback win is fraught, and there are plenty in the House who don’t want to see it happen. Here’s how Sununu’s plan, if successful, would play out:

1. The bill moves to the House floor, which pushes it into a committee of conference.

When the now-engorged HB 1636 returns to the House this week, the chamber has three choices: vote to concur and send it directly to the governor; vote to non-concur with the Senate changes, sending the voucher plan and all additional measures to a swift end; or push it into a committee of conference.

Option one is far from likely, given a 170-159 House vote Wednesday to send the original measure, SB 193, to interim study. And while killing the entire bill wholesale could be tempting for some members, all bets among leadership officials in the House and Senate are that the House will move it to that committee and pursue agreement.

2. The conference committee meets, and finds a compromise.

Under General Court rules, committees of conference feature four members from the House and three from the Senate, each appointed by the speaker and president of those bodies, respectively. The vote must be unanimous for the bill to proceed. But if agreement is not reached, the speaker or president is permitted to swap out members with those who will tow the line, setting up the potential for further legislative gamesmanship.

3. The committee bill heads back to the full House and Senate; this time, both agree to accept.

This, for the governor, is the crucial hurdle. Passage by the Senate is near guaranteed, but to get the bill to Sununu’s desk, the House will need to sign off. Wednesday’s interim study vote on SB 193 was decided on a close 11 votes; Thursday’s vote of reconsideration had a margin of seven.

Delays from the committee of conference and a concentrated lobbying effort could swing that result around. Or so goes the plan.

But then come the pitfalls. To start, there’s the policy itself. In sending the bill back to the House, the Senate opted to revert to the bill’s original language, put forward by Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield. That version included a much broader potential participant pool, without the per-district percentage caps imposed by the House to control potential costs to districts. And other significant fiscal changes abound.

The divergence poses obstacles for a conference committee. And it means House and Senate leadership will have to tread carefully if they want a final bargain to pass the House. Fill the committee with too many hardliners and the House could reject a final version; moderate voices could water the bill back down and impede approval.

Supporters are eyeing compromise. A spokesman for Gov. Sununu, Ben Vihstadt, would not elaborate what changes he would prioritize but said the governor “looks forward to continuing a constructive dialogue.” “We are confident that a good faith committee of conference process can produce legislation that both the House and Senate can support,” he added.

“There are some skeptics in the House,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. We’re obviously going to have to win them over.”

A second wild card: attendance. A full 61 members of the House were missing from the chamber when the House voted to send the bill to interim study; 41 of them Republican. Flipping votes, or muscling more into the room, could more than overcome the 11-vote difference.

The headcount uncertainty promises a potentially wild ride. And it drives home a truism about the third-largest legislature in the English speaking world: With fluctuating attendance rates that can veer from 250 members to nearly 400, devining the “true will” of the New Hampshire House requires a suspension of disbelief. If any different attendance combinations had prevailed Wednesday, the bill’s outcome could have been vastly different.

Add to that another, simpler rule: In this body, what is dead is never truly dead. Until it finally is.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at