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June 22. 2012 1:00AM

Lynch changes wording in school choice veto

CONCORD — Supporters of legislation to set up a school scholarship program that would help students attend private and religious schools say Gov. John Lynch has acknowledged he mistakenly concluded that some of the scholarships would be available to families regardless of their income.

Lynch on Thursday vetoed House Bill 1607, three days after he vetoed a nearly identical Senate bill, SB 372, referred to by supporters as the School Choice Scholarship Act. In veto messages accompanying both bills, Lynch's main objection was that the legislation would hurt public schools and “downshift” costs to cities and towns.

Lynch also took issue with the claim that the program would only help families of limited means. In his veto message Monday for SB 372, he said “a substantial portion of scholarships are available with no income restrictions and to students already attending private school.”

Bill backers called this statement false. Charles Arlinghaus, president of the free-market-oriented Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, which has strongly backed the legislation, called for a retraction.

Arlinghaus said the veto message the governor issued for the House bill on Thursday was close enough.

The veto to HB 1607 states: “Although these bills do limit eligibility to students from families at 300 percent of the federal poverty level, the proportion of funding required to be dedicated to free and reduced lunch-eligible students diminishes to zero over the course of 15 years.”

“This is a very meaningful point,” Arlinghaus said. “The governor has admitted that 100 percent of scholarships are means-tested. That fact is not in dispute. The proposal can now be considered on its merits,” Arlinghaus said, adding that “I applaud him for doing it – it takes a big man to do so.”

The legislation would allow businesses to receive tax credits for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations, which would distribute the scholarships for students to attend private or religious schools, as well as other public schools. The money could also be used to defray the cost of a home-school education.

In an interview Wednesday with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Lynch stood by his original veto message, including the claim that “a substantial portion of scholarships are available with no income restrictions.” He also noted that while 30 percent of scholarships are initially designated for students eligible to receive free and reduced lunch, this proportion is phased out. In an article Wednesday, the Union Leader incorrectly referred to this percentage as the portion of scholarships available without income restrictions.

In the HB 1607 veto message, Lynch also expressed this concern, stating that the “about 30 percent” proportion of scholarships that are to go to families that qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program “diminishes to zero over the course of 15 years.”

The bill states that “at least 40 percent of the scholarships (are to be) awarded by the scholarship organization to eligible federal free and reduced-price meal students public school students.” This proportion is reduced as the initial requirement that 70 percent of scholarship recipients be public students is reduced over 15 years.

Lynch has stressed that his main concern with the legislation is not the income limit language, but its impact on both public school funding and state revenues, which would be hurt by the loss in business tax collections.

“Diverting public funds to private schools and downshifting costs to cities and towns is the wrong policy for our state and taxpayers,” Lynch said in the veto message to HB 1607. He noted that the state Department of Education estimated the bill would cost school districts more than $3.6 million in the first year alone, and more in subsequent years, even with allocations meant to compensate school districts for lost per-pupil funding.

The House and Senate are set to vote on both bills next week. There appear to be enough votes in both chambers to override the governor's vetoes.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com.


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