This week Gov. John Lynch forgot to read a bill. Instead he vetoed the subject matter and complained about things that just aren't part of the bill.
Bill sponsors always complain that vetoes are misleading or that governors don't fully understand the content of bills they have vetoed, but in this case there is one clear, undeniable, egregious factual error. The governor clearly did not take the time to read the bill before he vetoed it.
The School Choice Scholarship Act (Senate Bill 372) creates scholarships, funded by tax credits, that lower-income students can use to attend a different public school or non-public school. Students from richer families already have the economic ability to make other educational choices. The scholarship bill tries to extend those opportunities to students from lower-income families.
The governor seemed modestly supportive of that goal, but then went off the rails. In his official veto message, he offered the claim that “while the intent of the bill, in part, is to provide financial assistance to less fortunate students in helping them switch to a private school, a substantial portion of scholarships are available with no income restrictions.”
The problem with his statement is that it isn't true. The bill quite clearly requires all scholarships to be means tested at 300 percent of the federal poverty limit (section VIII, part b). There's no ambiguity. The bill simply does the opposite of what he says it does.
I don't know exactly how something like this happens. It's most likely sloppiness. Clearly, the governor doesn't intend to lie about something so easily checked and so central to the concept of the bill. In a speech earlier in the process, we might attribute it to a mistake, perhaps a quick read through of a proposal, or a reliance on someone's else's description of the bill. In this case, perhaps some early draft in the legislative process may have allowed some scholarships without means testing, but the bill the governor vetoed does not.
A veto is not a mere statement of opinion; it is an act that overturns the will of the Legislature. In this case it was a Legislature that worked extremely hard to address an important issue and express that issue via the legislation, passed by clear majorities, presented to the governor. The Legislature did its job; the least the voters can expect is that the governor do his and read and understand what is presented to him. If a veto follows from that, so be it. But it is unfortunate and troubling to see a governor veto a bill not because of a difference of opinion but because he thought the bill did something it does not.
The simple solution: Read it before you veto it.
The Legislature that sent the bill to the governor will now vote on whether to override his veto. They'll discover more about the bill by reading it than by relying on the governor's incorrect veto message.
By the way, if you read the bill, it's actually a pretty good bill. The program is simple. Businesses could receive a tax credit for donations to a scholarship organization. That non-profit would give scholarships averaging $2,500 to students from poorer families (the cut off is roughly the bottom half of New Hampshire households).
The bill is a modest, but important step. The money allocated is less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the total school budgets of New Hampshire. But for an individual student able to use a scholarship for greater opportunity, the difference is huge.
No district would lose any state aid unless it had fewer students, and even then the loss is capped at one-quarter of 1 percent of that town's school budget. It's hard to see this as anything other than a modest pilot program certainly worthy of giving a try.
As modest a step as this is for the state, it can make an enormous difference in the lives of individual students. More choices for poorer families is just a good idea. Even the governor might agree if he'd read the bill.
Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord. His email address is email@example.com.