DNHPE 5/27/12 Update: House leadership in shambles: anything is possible on education bills

posted May 29, 2012, 4:05 AM by Bill Duncan

Defenders,

House leadership is in a shambles. House Majority Leader DJ Bettencourt and Robert Mead, on Bettencourt's staff, are wrapped in separate scandals.  House Speaker Bill O'Brien has made no comment or response.  All this is happening just at the crucial moment when the House and Senate are negotiating the final shape of many bills, including CACR 12, and organizing for override votes on bills vetoed by the Governor.

One possible veto target is SB 372, the voucher bill.  It passed both houses with veto-proof majorities but disarray in House leadership, combined issues raised in the major investigation of education tax credits by the New York Times, make a veto sustaining vote possible in the House.

I've been working on a reexamination of the final voucher bill in light of the new perspectives offered by the Times report, and that will come as soon as possible, but there's just too much happening not to get an Update out to you today.


CACR 12, the education funding amendment

My own discussions with legislators of every stripe give the same sense reported here in the Union Leader this morning: it's going to be hard for Republican leadership to pass any version of CACR 12, especially one with language that Governor Lynch will support.

Senate leadership, Sen. Jeb Bradley and Senate President Peter Bragdon, have said repeatedly that CACR 12 is viable only with the Governor's support.  But Governor Lynch would give the Legislature the responsibility and authority to fund education while a large caucus of libertarian House Republicans is committed to increased local control and firmly opposed to an amendment that would affirm state authority over education.  (Here is one explication of the views held by many of these legislators, "CACR 12 Poses a Threat to the First Amendment Rights of NH Public School Students," from New Hampshire Families for Education.)  This group may not be as large as the 100 votes Gary Reno reports in his column today, but it is large.  They, together with solid opposition from House Democrats committed to continued state funding for education, would be enough to kill the amendment.

Though this fundamental divide between the Governor and the House libertarians appears impossible to bridge, Rep. Bettencourt has been trying.  He is very conservative and has made the leadership case forcefully to the libertarians (Here is his pitch).  But whether he resigns today or June 6th, he will probably no longer be an asset in passing CACR 12 and other leadership bills.

There is a certain irony in the ideological split among Republicans.  The libertarian legislators elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave have given Republicans their powerful super-majority in both houses but they now constitute the obstacle to passing the most important legislation sought by leadership and the Republican party establishment, whom libertarians see as  "big government Republicans."  

The results of negotiations among the House, the Senate and the Governor's office will probably become visible at the meeting of the CACR 12 Committee of Conference scheduled for Tuesday, May 29, at 3:30 in LOB 210.  Here is video of the CACR 12 Committee of Conference to date.  


Vouchers

The Senate has sent SB 372m the voucher bill, to the Governor, who may or may not veto it.  The votes are there in the Senate to override a veto and it is clear that on May 16th, at least, the Republican House leadership had the votes to override.  Only 2 Senate Republican and 17 House Republicans voted with Democrats against vouchers:

Republican Senators against SB 372
Nancy Stiles (Hampton)
Bob Odell (Concord)

Republican House members against SB 372
Julie Brown (Rochester), 
Michael Buxton (Nashua), 
Tim Copeland (Stratham), 
Carolyn Gargaz (Hollis),   
Phyllis Katsakiores  (Derry), 
David Kidder (New London, who spoke against it on the floor,  twice), 
David Knox (Wolfeboro), 
Priscilla Lockwood (Caterbury), 
Irene Messier (Manchester), 
William Remick (Lancaster), 
Lisa Scontas (Manchester), 
John Sytek (Nashua), 
Ross Terrio (Manchester), 
Steve Vaillancourt (Manchester), 
Jim Waddell (Hampton)

All Senate Democrats and all but 2 House Democrats voted against the voucher bills.

Another 29 Republicans who voted against vouchers on March 29 voted for SB 372 on May 16.  I've called a number of them and got essentially the same answer from everyone.  They did not seem to feel pressured to vote for the voucher bill.  Sometimes they were persuaded by colleagues who made the point that this was really not "vouchers" but private money and that it is targeted to lower income people.  

But what really persuaded them in most cases was the new provision placing a .25% "cap" on the amount of money a school district could lose under the plan.  The fact is, the .25% cap leaves substantial opportunity for revenue loss.  A school district like Littleton, with a $30 million budget, for instance, could find on the first day of school that they would face a $75,000 revenue loss for that year, a significant cost to the instructional program. We will be looking for ways to make that case to legislators if the Governor does veto the bill.

The blockbuster event, coming a few days after the House vote, was the New York Times piece by Stephanie Saul, exposing the misuse of education tax credit funded vouchers in Georgia, with some reference to Arizona and Pennsylvania.  Relying heavily on a report from The Southern Education Foundation, "A Failed Experiment: Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarships for Private Schools," the Times skewers the Georgia program.

The Georgia program differs in size and in many other ways from the New Hampshire plan, but there are interesting comparison's to be made:
  • Both programs use tax credits to get around the prohibition against sending public funds to religious schools.  The Times piece points out how deeply embedded religion is in Georgia schools participating in the program.  The New Hampshire program will almost certainly rely on similar evangelical Christian school participation and be tested in court if it passes.
  • Both programs were pushed through their Legislatures with important help from the national voucher advocates, including bogus studies from groups like the Friedman Foundation.
  • Georgia's program uses trickery to fund children who don't actually need the vouchers because they are already in private schools.  The New Hampshire program just gives public money straight to private school students with no apology!
  • New Hampshire's program grows automatically at 25% per year, if it is 80% used in the previous year.  Georgia rejected a similar provision but is criticized for growing automatically at the rate of inflation.  
  • Like the New Hampshire program, the Georgia program has no meaningful accountability for the public funds.  
  • The Georgia and Pennsylvania programs illustrate how difficult it is to anticipate all the opportunities for self-dealing and perversion of the program goals.  The New Hampshire plan falls short in this area as well:
  • Scholarship Organizations (SOs) are the new entities charged with accepting business donations and giving out the scholarships.   The NH bill forbids SO dedicated to a single school but the SO could be dedicated to 2 or several schools, as they frequently are in Georgia, thus serving as a major new funding targeted to specific private religious schools.
  • In both states, SOs could be run by legislators or lobbyists and, in any case, could develop favor-trading relationships with legislators.

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