My Turn: Let’s tackle the big problems in New Hampshire

For the Monitor
Published: 12/14/2019 6:00:16 AM

I come to my role as a state representative with a background in farming, where not a day goes by when we don’t have to make a tough decision or do something unpleasant, frequently involving manure. Naively, I thought life in the relatively orderly world of the State House would be easier.

Silly me.The unpleasant stuff in the Legislature doesn’t reek like dung but you’d be forgiven for thinking it did the way many of my colleagues avoid it. Maybe they’re afraid to get their hands dirty?

So I’ve decided to hold my nose and tackle one of our biggest problems – the high cost of in-state tuition – with my Working Families Scholarship. Because, in a nutshell, not enough of our native sons and daughters are staying in state to go to school – it’s simply too expensive. Why? Because we all enjoy living in one of the few states in the country with no income tax and no broad-based sales tax.

While we appreciate our low tax system, it’s time to admit that it’s not up to funding a modern state. Don’t believe me? Consider this: Our higher education funding ranks last in the nation. In-state tuition at our public colleges is among the most expensive in the country. More kids leave the state to attend college than from anywhere else. The majority don’t come back. We’re losing a generation of young people who, if they went to school here, would likely stay here, start families here, work here and spend their money here. This is a real problem in need of a real solution.

The Working Families Scholarship is geared toward kids with an estimated family contribution – the amount they have to pay toward their schooling annually – of $6,000 to $20,000. That’s middle-income families. The scholarships would go to kids who graduate from our high schools and attend one of our public colleges.

How will we pay for this? Are you sitting down? With a tax. The legislation extends our existing rooms and meals tax to ski lift tickets, earmarking the revenue to fund the scholarship. Unclutch your pearls, this is a sound sacrifice for a badly needed benefit.

It’s not unfair to skiers. The bill exempts season passes and those 18 and younger. And it’s no more unfair to skiers than the rooms and meals tax is to people who eat at restaurants and stay in hotels. It doesn’t arbitrarily target skiing, either. Our current rooms and meals tax already extends to rental cars while falling largely on those from out of state. Allowing us to keep our no income tax, no sales tax way of life.

Nor is it unfair to the ski industry. Vail Resorts, one of the biggest owners of ski areas, has a market cap of almost $10 billion. They’re doing fine. And if the rooms and meals tax is good enough for a small family-owned business like mine, which pays the tax on our AirBnB and every meal our catering business serves, it’s good enough for a company the size of Vail Resorts, right?

I figured since I’m doing the hard stuff, I might as well keep going. So in addition to funding the scholarship, the legislation also addresses prison education. Or our lack of it. High tuition causes us to export potential business owners, home buyers and family starters that our high school graduates represent while we keep making more prison inmates. How? Because 44% of those released from our prisons will be reincarcerated within three years. The best way to reduce recidivism is to make sure inmates get an education. Among prisoners who earn a college degree, recidivism drops to 4%. But inmates in New Hampshire essentially have no access to college or vocational education. It costs over $40,000 a year to keep someone in prison – surely the definition of “penny wise and pound foolish.”

House Republicans like to yell “Taxation is theft!” at every opportunity. But even if, like me, you roll your eyes when they break out that hollow refrain, when it comes to public policy there aren’t a lot of tools available: taxes, incentives and mandates are about it. We can’t mandate that New Hampshire kids attend our public colleges. But by using a tax to fund the scholarships, we can reduce the cost of doing so, incentivizing something we all want. Because when a kid goes to college here, we all win.

Legislators shrink from taxes like city folks from farm smells. But not all taxes are the same. A ski lift tax is not a crushing burden. Funding higher education isn’t a radical idea. It’s a reasonable way to finance a valuable program.

Republican leader Dick Hinch has referred to my legislation as “unnecessary.” The governor has said he will veto the bill, characterizing it as an “example of extremism.” Let’s note that neither has proposed an alternative solution. Do they think ranking last in higher ed funding is okay? That having so many of our kids leave the state – the majority to not return – is okay? I don’t. Everything about education is good. Best way to improve health? Best way to decrease prison recidivism? Best way to ensure higher incomes? Best way to reduce unemployment? Best way to reduce reliance on government services? Education.

I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about politics, but I didn’t run for office to rename round-a-bouts. Everything I’ve learned farming tells me that we have to support our most valuable assets and think long-term. That means tackling the hard stuff. In New Hampshire, our young people are our most valuable asset. Let’s set aside our fear and do what we can to make New Hampshire better. Everyone talks about the courage leadership demands. It’s time to show some.

(Craig Thompson is a farmer and state representative from Cheshire County.)

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