CONCORD — A Republican-backed bill to fund full-day kindergarten by taxing newly authorized Keno games in New Hampshire cleared the House and Senate on Thursday in a bipartisan vote.
The measure now heads to Gov. Chris Sununu, who has made expanded kindergarten a signature policy issue.
Legislative leaders had predicted a close vote, but in the end the measure passed by wide margins, 251-111 in the House and 15-8 in the Senate.
Some Republicans previously opposed to state funding for kindergarten, or opposed to state-licensed Keno games, voted for the bill, SB 191, in large part to support Sununu.
Many Democrats who've historically supported state funding for kindergarten voted against the measure because they don't feel it goes far enough, but enough of them voted for it to assure passage.
"This is not a requirement for any town to adopt full-day kindergarten," said Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge. "If you have it or plan to do it, you will get a minimum of $1,100 per pupil."
About 70 percent of the school districts in the state, serving 80 percent of students, have already adopted full-day kindergarten using local property taxes to pay for the second half of the day.
The state currently offers school districts a grant of $1,800 per student for kindergarten enrollment. That's half the so-called "adequacy grant" of $3,600 for students in grades 1-12, assuming half-day kindergarten programs.
Many Democrats wanted the second half of the kindergarten day fully funded at $1,800, with the money from Keno going into the state's Education Trust Fund.
Instead, the bill approved on Thursday guarantees only $1,100 per student each year, linked entirely to the revenue from Keno.
Umberger said as Keno revenue rises over the years, the state per-pupil grant would rise to the level of $1,800 per student.
"We are hoping and expecting that Keno will eventually exceed the $9 million the Lottery Commission is projecting at this time," she said.
In the Senate, Republicans Gary Daniels of Milford and Andy Sanborn of Bedford opposed the bill. Democrats David Watters of Durham, Donna Soucy of Manchester, and Jay Kahn of Keene supported it, but said it was a difficult vote.
Democrats voting against the bill cited the funding source. Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said she couldn't "tether kindergarten to Keno."
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, said Keno would pull money from low-income people. "This is a transfer of wealth from those who can afford it the least," he said.
Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, a longtime supporter of bills for casino gambling, called Keno "very addictive."
"I would not want any of you to think that I am a hypocrite, because I'm not a hypocrite," he said.
D'Allesandro, noting Manchester now has full-day kindergarten, said Keno is the wrong revenue source to fund full-day kindergarten.
It poses a constitutional problem because the state funds other public students differently, according to Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord.
Sen. Dan Innis, R-New Castle, said Keno funding is not so unusual. He noted that public education has benefited from state lottery sales since the mid-1960s.
Sununu applauded passage of the bill by both chambers.
"The investments made today will give New Hampshire's children a strong foundation for tomorrow's future," he said. "Full-day kindergarten is good for children and families, and a critical tool in retaining our future workforce."
firstname.lastname@example.org; Staff writer Dan Tuohy contributed to this report.