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June 05. 2012 10:55PM

House in two votes fails to pass ed-funding amendment

CONCORD — Citizens will not be voting on a constitutional amendment in November to shift control over public schools to lawmakers and away from the courts.

The House took two votes that failed to reach the three-fifth majorities needed to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot.

The House initially voted 224-144, which was 13 votes short of the 237 needed to put the amendment on the ballot. Lawmakers reconsidered and this time voted 224-141, again failing.

The Senate easily approved CACR 12, which was backed by House Speaker William O’Brien and Senate President Peter Bragdon and Gov. John Lynch, on a 17-6 vote, but that was not enough.

Historically the House has always rejected constitutional amendments reducing the courts’ roll in education, with last year the only exception.

Wednesday an unholy coalition of Democrats, Libertarian leaning and disgruntled Republicans opposed CACR 12 with enough muscle to block passage, despite a full court press by O’Brien and the Republican leadership.

The Republican caucus before the vote included speeches from the two gubernatorial candidates, Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith, former gubernatorial candidate John Stephen and state party chair Wayne MacDonald. Former Gov. John H. Sununu sent Republicans a letter urging their support for the amendment.

After the vote, O’Brien blamed Lynch for the amendment’s failure saying the governor failed to convince Democrats to vote for it.

Lynch said he was disappointed in the House vote.

“To make progress on an important public policy issue such as this, all sides must work together, and that can only happen if an element of trust exists. Cleary, there is a fundamental divide among House members on this issue, not only between the two parties, but also within the Republican caucus,” Lynch said. “Cooperation and trust are fundamental to building the coalitions needed to pass an amendment such as this one. Unfortunately, those essential qualities were missing from today’s debate.”

Senators and Representatives called Wednesday’s vote the most important many lawmakers will ever caste, and both sides agreed.

Supporters pleaded with their colleagues to let the people weigh-in, while opponents said waiting for the right amendment was far better than passing one that either enshined the Supreme Court’s Claremont and Londonderry decisions or walked away from the state’s responsibility to educate its children.

Rep. Andrew Manuse, R-Derry, argued the amendment would enshrine the Claremont decisions and allow the court to declare victory.

“This is raising the white flag of defeat and saying ‘Claremont is right,’” said Manuse. “I’m not going to do that and I’m asking you right here and right now to join me in the fight.”

Why rush through something when there is time to craft the right amendment, Manuse said. “It is egotistical to believe that this legislature has to do this right now.”

Supporters urged members to end the nearly two decade of turmoil the Claremont decisions created and to let the people have a voice on one fo the largest issues faced by the state.

Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, told his colleagues they are not passing law but rather proposing a constitutional amendment that will be submitted to voters.

“This has been the vortex of public policy discussions for 20 years,”

Hess said, “and our friends and our neighbors have never had the opportunity to address this issue. They deserve that.”

Rep. Paul Mirski, R-Enfield asked the House to reconsider its action and said the court has acted unethically in dealing with the lawmakers on the education issue.

“Now is the time to take the gloves off and do something constructive to change the game,” he told his colleagues.

During the Senate debate, Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, said she felt the amendment would give the Legislature too much power of education funding and would shift costs to already strained school districts.

“If you look at the history, I think we’d all have to agree education funding has been erratic at the least,” she said. “There was a time when school districts and municipalities were left without any reliable source of funding – why would we want o go back to those days?”

Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, said he understood the reservations expressed by members of the House, noting that he did not believe that public education was a right.

But he said he would reluctantly vote for the measure. “I don’t think either side is happy with the heavy role played by the court,” he said. “But I have to go with the solution that is possible, to preserve the New Hampshire advantage.”

Democrats praised the House vote defeating the amendment.

“The proposed amendment would have given the legislature “the full power and authority” to determine the amount of state funding for education. This would allow the state to downshift most, if not all, of the cost of education to the local property tax payer,” said Rep.

Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton. “The amendment would also have severely limited the ability of anyone to challenge the actions of the legislature by changing the standard of court review from a strict scrutiny to a rational basis test. The House’s vote today was a wise decision.”

Bragdon said he was disappointed in the House vote. “I am disappointed the House was unable to pass this important constitutional amendment that would have determined the balance between the courts and the legislature over how our tax dollars are spent on education,” he said.

“We will try again next year to allow the people of New Hampshire to vote on this critical issue.”

CACR 12 would shift control of schools from the court to lawmakers by giving the legislature “full power and authority” to set education standards and accountability, and determine how best to distribute state aid to school districts.

The state would be responsible for maintaining a public education system and to mitigate fiscal disparities among communities.

The Senate approved the amendment on a 17-6 vote, more than the 15 votes needed for a three-fifth majority.

The amendment would have needed to have been approved by two-thirds of voters to change the constitution.

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New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Siefer contributed to this article. Garry Rayno may be reached at grayno@unionleader.com.


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