Legislative leaders and the governor have reached a deal on language for an education funding constitutional amendment.
This is the closest the state has ever come to putting an education funding amendment on the ballot. If Senate and House members muster super-majorities next week, voters will get their say this November.
But that may still be a big if.
As House and Senate leaders praised the deal on a constitutional education funding amendment, Republican Representative David Hess sat back, grinning.
Give the veteran lawmaker his due, he’s been around for nearly every education constitutional funding debate that’s happened over the last decade and a half.
Over 14 ½ years of failures, he believes this year could finally be the year that the Senate and House drum up super-majorities needed to get the amendment on the ballot.
And he says, he’s, well....psyched.
“I’m psyched that we passed amendments in the House and the Senate. I am psyched that we got together and compromised on language . and I’m really psyched that we got the governor to sign on to as well.”
Getting to this point has been no small task. Legislative leaders and the governor have been negotiating since early 2011.
Prospects looked grim late last year, when the House barely bothered to consider the governor’s amendment. But Speaker Bill O’Brien says ultimately a deep desire to do something outweighed all other considerations.
“Governor Lynch and I really on a one-to-one basis, and in some instances, just he and I, sat down and said we all want to solve this. How do we solve this? And we said we solve it by trusting each other, wanting the best for New Hampshire. And working down to an agreement.”
O’Brien, senate leaders and the governor say the amendment will give lawmakers a freer hand to distribute school aid.
Right now, lawmakers have to pay for a so-called adequate education, meaning they have to send $3540 to every student in the state, regardless of their town’s wealth.
And when funding formula are challenged in court, they’re held up to the highest judicial standard.
If the amendment is adopted, supporters say it will be harder for the court to strike down a funding plan. The amendment also gives the Legislature authority to set education standards.
Both the Senate and House meet next Wednesday to vote on the proposal. The amendment is expected to pass the Senate. The question is how it will fare in the House.
Speaker O’Brien called on Democrats to follow Governor Lynch’s lead.
“I would ask that the members of his legislative party have the same courage he’s shown and come forward and support this constitutional amendment.”
“I don’t believe that Democrats are going to vote for a constitutional amendment.”
That’s Democratic Representative Gary Richardson. He says many House Democrats believe the amendment would lead to the state cutting the nearly $1 billion dollars it spends on public education today.
Richardson says to him, this amendment is like giving future legislatures a blank check.
“As soon as this constitutional amendment passes, if it passes, the Legislature will respond to all of the fiscal concerns that we have. Legislators come here and once we become state officials, our role and our responsibility and what is foremost in our minds is balancing a budget and that’s what we will do.”
The amendment needs 237 votes to pass the House. If most of the 100 Democrats vote no, that means it’s up to Republicans, and really this is all about the most conservative House members.
People just like Representatives Dan Itse, Greg Sorg and Paul Ingbretson.
After the amendment language was released, reporters approached the three outside the statehouse. They looked at the amendment.......and walked away. That’s not a good sign for amendment supporters.
The problem, explains conservative Senator Jim Forsythe, is that to the most Libertarian-minded lawmakers the amendment gives the state too big a role in education. On top of that, they think the court still has too much say. Forsythe says this amendment presents a dilemma for people like him.
“The agonizing decision is whether or not it’s better to do nothing or do something that we know is imperfect based on our beliefs.”
Many Republicans believe getting this amendment through the House will be a challenge.
Amendment supporters - especially the ones with battle scars like Representative Hess - will do their best to remind conservative holdouts this moment is bigger than them.
“The bottom line on constitutional amendments is we are not passing something and then it becomes law. What we are doing is voting to give the people a chance to express themselves on it. they haven’t had that chance in 14 ½ years.”
Hess says this is moment is so monumental, the public is entitled to that opportunity.
The language of the agreed upon amendment follows:
[Art.] 5-c [Public Education]. In fulfillment of the provisions with respect to education set forth in Part II, Article 83, the legislature shall have the responsibility to maintain a system of public elementary and secondary education and to mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity. In furtherance thereof, the Legislature shall have the full power and authority to make reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education and standards of accountability and to determine the amount of, and the methods of raising and distributing, state funding for public education.