January 26. 2013 10:20PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: House again to mull turning back clock on young laws

State House Bureau

The House this week will take up two more attempts to undo what lawmakers did over the past two years.

Last week, about 300 people attended a public hearing on House Bill 135, which would repeal the stand-your-ground legislation approved last year over then-Gov. John Lynch's veto. Most of the 300 people at the five-hour House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing were there to oppose the repeal.

The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing Thursday on House Bill 370, which would repeal the education tax credit program lawmakers passed last year over Lynch's veto. House leaders are expecting a crowd, so the hearing will be held in Representatives Hall, beginning at 12:30 p.m.

The program had been praised as a way to ensure all children would receive the best education possible and decried as a back-door voucher plan that would take money away from public schools as private and religious schools cherry picked the best, and thus least expensive, students to educate.

Under the program, students can receive up to a $2,500 scholarship to attend private or parochial schools. Homeschooled students can receive up to a $750 scholarship. School districts losing students because of the scholarships also lose an average $4,100 per student in state education aid.

As of Friday, 10 companies seeking the tax credit have committed $116,620 in scholarship money to the program, which has a $4 million limit this fiscal year. One nonprofit - Network for Educational Opportunities - has registered to offer the scholarships, but the Department of Revenue Administration has not been notified of any having been awarded, according to John Lighthall, speaking for the department.

The education tax credit program is also under a legal cloud because the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the state to block its implementation, claiming taxpayer dollars would be sent to religious institutions.

The prime sponsor of HB 370, House Education Committee Chairman Mary Gile, D-Concord, said she testified against the tax credit program when it was before the House last year, noting it never came before the Education Committee.

"I'm not convinced New Hampshire can afford this, first and foremost," she said. "My primary concern about education in New Hampshire is to support public education, and this program would divert business profits taxes and business enterprise taxes that go to the general fund and used to support public education."

Noting the program was sold as providing poor children with an opportunity for a first-class education, she said she did not know how far a $2,500 scholarship would go to accomplish that with the high cost of private school tuition.

"If we are going to promote choice in education - and many of our schools are transforming themselves - we can offer choice within the public school system," Gile said. "That is the direction we should be moving in."

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 372, which established the program last year.

"I would hope the critics would take a couple of steps back, take a couple of deep breaths and give it a few years to see if it could work," Bradley said. "Let's take a wait-and-see approach. We may need to do some tweaking."

Like the repeal of the stand-your-ground law, the repeal of the education tax credit/scholarship program is expected to pass the House, where Democrats hold about a 40-vote majority.

Similarly, the tax credit program is a lot more iffy in the Senate, where the partisan divide is 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The fate of the repeal will come down to the votes of two senators: Bob Odell, R-Lempster, and Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton. Both voted to support Lynch's veto last year, and they voted against the bill when the Senate passed it on a 17-7 vote.

If their opposition continues, then the repeal is likely to make its way to Gov. Maggie Hassan's desk. Hassan said during the gubernatorial campaign she supports doing away with the program because it diverts money from the public school system.

The voucher issue is one aspect, the other is money. Without the tax credit/scholarship program, the state would have additional revenues available. That would delight budget writers, who face an extremely difficult task making the budget balance.

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STILL WORKING: Rep. William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 271, which would prevent the state from expanding the Medicaid program under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The expansion would allow anyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for the state and federal health care program for the poor and disabled.

House speaker at the time, O'Brien worked tirelessly last summer and fall to ensure the state did not expand Medicaid.He contends it would cost the state too much.

A public hearing on O'Brien's bill will be held Feb. 5 at 10 a.m. in Representatives Hall.

On the opposite side, Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, and others are sponsoring a bill that would require the state to expand the Medicaid program under the ACA.

That bill has not been published, so no public hearing has been scheduled.

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STARTING UP: The House and Senate will meet in session this week for the first time since the governor's inauguration.

The House will meet Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. to act on 25 bills, while the Senate will meet Thursday at 10 a.m. to act on nine bills.

The Senate has three key bills: one to increase the research and development business tax credit from $1 million to $10 million and make it permanent; one to extend the hold-harmless provision for state aid for school districts; and one to change in the local tax cap law.

The House has nothing as weighty on its calendar, but does have the bill that would give families control over a deceased person's social media and electronic communications sites. The Judiciary Committee voted, 13-7, to kill the bill.

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WARNING SHOT: Although there are few bills this year that would restrict gun rights, Second Amendment advocates are planning a rally at the State House from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday.

In a news release announcing the rally, the organizers said: "It is time for 'We The People' to wake up and realize that we are about to lose everything! The current attack on our Second Amendment rights by the Obama administration is a precursor to total gun confiscation."

Jerry DeLemus, organizer of the Rochester 912 Project, and Jack Kimball, chairman of the Granite State Patriots and former state GOP chairman, are sponsoring the "Line-in-the-Granite, 2nd Amendment Rally."

"This is a 'Valley Forge' event, and we will rally regardless of weather," the sponsors said.