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April 07. 2012 7:18PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Lawmakers seek accord on scholarships, tax credits


 

The House and the Senate passed their own versions of bills that would provide scholarships to low- and middle-income students through business tax credits.

While there are differences in the two bills that will need to be reconciled before the end of the session — including whether the House or Senate gets the credit — the prime sponsor of the House's version, House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, has already begun the push to override a potential Gov. John Lynch veto.

Bettencourt's office sent letters to House supporters of the bill, which passed on a 173-127 vote with no Democratic support, thanking them and saying their continued support is critical.

“Due to the importance of this legislation the Majority Office is taking immediate preparations in the event that Gov. Lynch chooses to slam the door in the faces of hundreds of students who are seeking choice by vetoing this bill,” Bettencourt wrote.

Bettencourt and others tout the bill as a vehicle for low- and middle-income families to choose the right schools for their students so they “are able to achieve the best academic outcome possible while improving overall education in New Hampshire.”

Under both the House and Senate versions of the bill, businesses could donate to a nonprofit organization that would provide scholarships of up to $2,500 per student. The student's family would have to be at 300 percent of the federal poverty level or below.

The business would receive 85 percent tax credit against state business taxes.

Students in home schools could receive up to a $750 scholarship.

School districts losing students because of the scholarships would lose $4,100 per student in state education aid.

But not all Republicans are in favor of the plan.

During the House debate, longtime House Finance Committee member Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said though he believes in education competition and school choice, “we need to pay for this and not downshift to local property taxpayers.”

If a student leaves a school, he noted, expenses for that school do not decrease along with the state aid it loses.

“We went through you know what in the budget to avoid downshifting,” Kurk said. “Now we have a bill that says downshifting is okay if we can get school choice.”

Others opponents call it a back-door approach to vouchers that move taxpayers dollars from public schools to private and religious schools.

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy has promoted the scholarship plan, and Bettencourt included two reports by the center along with his letter to supporters.

Senators passed Senate Bill 372 on a 15-9 vote, also with no Democratic support.

During the Senate debate on the bill, the prime sponsor, Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, said, “Education tax credits enable more choices for parents, putting accountability for education directly in their hands.”

Neither the House nor the Senate had veto proof majorities in their first actions on the bills. Lynch has not said he would veto the bills, but has expressed some concerns.

Press secretary Colin Manning said after the House vote: “The governor is concerned about using public money to fund private education, and what does this mean for state resources? It is what it is.”

But that may be putting the cart before the horse, as first the House and Senate leadership has to decide which bill will go forward and which bill will die.

That is not as easy as it sounds considering the bills are nearly identical, and secondly, this is hostage-taking season in the House and Senate, and one or both of the bills could be part of that scenario.

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BIA WANTS TO END GRIDLOCK: Business and Industry Association President Jim Roche sent business leaders and organizations an email inviting them to a meeting April 16 at New Hampshire Public Radio's site in Concord to discuss how to end gridlock in Washington and in New Hampshire.

“Over the past several years, it's seems our national and state leaders have become more and more gridlocked when it comes to finding practical solutions to policy problems. Hunkering down into polarized camps when jobs need to be created and the economic climate needs improving serves no one well, least of all the business community.

“That's why the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire has been working with four other groups (Leadership New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the New Hampshire Humanities Council and New Hampshire Listens) to try and address the problem of gridlock,” Roche said. He said the April 16 meeting is to fully discuss the issue.

Business leaders say they have not had to worry about lawmakers doing something the last two years that would severely affect their businesses. However, despite the poolitical rhetoric, they also have not really been helped a great deal either. Business tax rates remain where they were when this Legislature convened in January 2011, and that is the key issue.

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MORE ON REDISTRICTING: What may have a greater effect on businesses is the next election, but at this time, which candidates will be running in which districts is a bit unsettled.

Friday, the Attorney General's Office was expected to file the House and Senate redistricting plans with the U.S. Department of Justice for review in light of the state's obligation under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many don't know that 10 communities in New Hampshire were found in violation of the act during the 1968 general election, and as a result, the state must file with the federal DOJ for approval any change in election law, including the redrawing of political boundaries.

House Speaker William O'Brien had asked to see the submission before the Attorney General's Office sent it to Washington, and the House outside counsel for redistricting, David Vicinanzo, scheduled a conference call Friday afternoon for final discussions.

O'Brien's chief of staff, Greg Moore, said the process could be expedited so there would be no questions when the filing period for state offices opens June 6.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner needs to be able to send information to town and city clerks by mid-May so everyone is aware exactly what district they will be running in, Moore said.

However, the same may not be said for the Executive Council and congressional districts.

The House has already approved plans for both the council and congressional districts.

However the Senate approved congressional districts after an agreement had been reached between Congressmen Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta. That plan was approved by the House Special Redistricting Committee on an 11-5 vote last week, but has some detractors because it moves many more communities between districts than the House plan, which moved six.

One big concern is putting Campton and Plymouth in different congressional districts.

The Senate also redid the Executive Council plan in a big way that pleased no one but District 5 Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford.

Particularly upset was District 1 Councilor Raymond Burton, R-Bath, who saw the west half of his current district chopped in two and the east half extended south to Dover and Madbury.

Tom Thomson, son of former Gov. Mel Thomson and an Orford resident, said he and his family are not happy about the change.

“We are part of the North Country, and we are proud of it. The North Country is where we want to be,” he said. Under the Senate plan, Orford would be in the 2nd Council district.

Thomson said he called Senate President Peter Bragdon and suggested Orford, Wentworth, Rumney and Plymouth all should be in Burton's district.

That makes more sense than Rochester, Somersworth and Dover, Thomson said.

He like other individuals and businesses in the North Country have a long-established and good working relationship with Burton, Thomson said, and whoever is the District 2 councilor just wouldn't be the same.

“I'm going to contact every state senator; it's that important to me,” Thomson said.

The Senate will vote on Executive Council redistricting Wednesday, and Bragdon has said he would work with Burton to overhaul the plan and present it on Wednesday.

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GONE BUT NOT SILENT: The letter was not unexpected, but O'Brien informed Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, last week he was being removed from the House Finance Committee because of a “lack of collegiality.”

Vaillancourt has frequently clashed with O'Brien and his leadership team, most vigorously over redistricting but over other issues, as well.

In his blog, Vaillancourt wrote: “My first reaction was, ‘Hey, Mr. Tyrant, what took you so long? I've been expecting this for weeks because my honor is more important than a spot on any committee.'

“I consider this a red badge of honor. Anyone who manages to stay on such a committee, in the O'Brien climate of hate and retaliation, is not doing his or her job. . . . Being called less than collegial by Bill O'Brien is like being called ugly by a pig.”

The move was reportedly due to a dust-up Vaillancourt had with Finance Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, over Vaillancourt's bill to eliminate the state art fund.

More likely it was the straw that broke the camel's back for O'Brien, who has assigned Vaillancourt to the Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee, quite a change from the committee that determines the state's purse strings.

A dust-up between Manchester delegation Chairman Will Infantine and Vaillancourt in emails concerning the city's suit over redistricting were making the rounds last week as well, with Infantine, who voted to override Lynch's veto of the redistricting plan, accusing Vaillancourt of suggesting putting Wards 8 and 9 with Litchfield in one district, the issue driving the suit.

House Special Committee on Redistricting Chairman Paul Mirski got involved, saying in an email Vaillancourt did suggest the float district as a way to elect Republicans who are city residents.

Vaillancourt says that is more O'Brien and Mirski “lies.”

Vaillancourt is not the first person removed from Finance. Lee Quandt of Exeter was removed by O'Brien last year.

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LINING UP TO RUN: District 5 Sen. Matthew Houde, D-Meriden, no more than said he was not running for reelection than two Democrats said they will vie for the seat.

Claremont city firefighter and school board member Brian Rapp has already thrown his hat into the ring.

And if he hasn't already, Rep. David Pierce of Etna is also expected to run for the seat, which has strong Democratic leanings.

Garry Rayno writes State House Dome weekly for New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at grayno@unionleader.com.


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