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November 22. 2011 10:30PM

O'Brien says Lynch's school funding plan keeps courts in control

CONCORD — Gov. John Lynch's proposed constitutional amendment would continue the court's control over public education and its funding, House Speaker William O'Brien told the House Special Committee on Education Reform Tuesday.

The governor did not attend the public hearing on his amendment, and neither did House and Senate Democratic leaders.

O'Brien presented the governor's amendment to the committee as a way of “breaking the logjam” and providing transparency, he told the committee, although he opposes the proposal. “I was hoping we would have an open debate,” he said.

But committee member Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, said “This to me is an attempt to defeat the governor's proposal before we have a chance to discuss it.”

Earlier this year, the governor, O'Brien and Senate President Peter Bragdon tried to reach agreement on language for a constitutional amendment to allow the state to target aid to the neediest communities by giving lawmakers more discretion in determining education standards and funding. However, the talks failed largely over the court's role in education decisions.

While O'Brien and Bragdon continued to try to find common ground, the House and Senate each approved different proposed amendments that the other body has yet to act on.

Last month Lynch released his own proposed constitutional amendment that allows the state to target aid but retains the state's responsibility to fund an adequate education.

At Tuesday's public hearing, O'Brien said he believes the best proposal is the House-passed amendment that would return to the tradition of local school districts defining and funding education and the state helping those communities most in need.

“The choice between the governor's language and the House language is whether or not you want government to work through a judicial mandate or government to work through the normal legislative process,” O'Brien said.

While education is very important, he said, the House amendment put its on par with other essential government services.

In a letter to committee chair Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, Lynch said he released his proposed amendment in order to ensure ample time within the normal legislative process for everyone to participate in the discussion.

“Amending our state constitution is one of the most serious and consequential acts that our legislature and our voters can undertake,” Lynch wrote. “I am concerned that the House schedule does not allow for full public participation or provide an opportunity for Republicans, Democrats and Independents to come together and reach consensus. A single hearing two days before the Thanksgiving holiday and action on the House floor less than a week following the holiday will not provide the opportunity for all concerned to appear and participate in this important process.”

The proposed amendment was supported by Pat Remick, director of the Coalition Communities comprised of 36 donor cities and towns, and by Mark Kaplan, chairman of the New London selectmen.

The amendment was opposed by Rep. Gergory Sorg, R-Easton, who said Lynch's proposal would “sanction the role the courts adopted for themselves as the third branch of the Legislature.”

The amendment was also opposed by Dean Michener of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, who said his group opposes any amendment “that undermines state funding of education as a fundamental right.”

He said the goal of the governor's proposed amendment is to diminish the state's role in funding education. If passed, he said some communities will either have to raise property taxes or cut programs.

The governor's proposed constitutional amendment will be introduced Nov. 30 as a floor amendment to CACR 14, which is the Senate-passed constitutional amendment. The House tabled the measure after the Senate approved it.

Three-fifths of the House members and three-fifths of the Senate members need to approve a proposed constitutional amendment in order to place it on the general election ballot.

Once on the ballot, two-thirds of voters need to approve it to amend the constitution.

Until this year, every attempt to approve a constitutional amendment on education funding has failed to pass the House.


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