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June 27. 2012 8:32PM

School choice veto override 'keeps kids in school'

CONCORD — The Legislature wrapped up its 2012 session on Wednesday with Republicans hailing two major accomplishments, the final passage of bills creating a private scholarship program and establishing stricter voter identification rules.

On “Veto Day,” the House and Senate were able to override gubernatorial vetoes on Senate Bill 372, called “School Choice Scholarship Act,” and Senate Bill 289, the voter ID bill, along with vetoes of several other bills.

SB 372 allows businesses to receive tax credits for donations to scholarship funds to help low- and middle-income students attend private and religious schools.

The Senate voted 16-7 to override the veto of SB 372 – the exact margin needed to overrule the governor.

The House voted 236-108, narrowly surpassing the two-thirds margin necessary for an override.

Republican leaders considered the legislation one of their highest priorities this session.

“This is a program that's going to help keep kids in school,” said Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, the bill's prime sponsor, ahead of the vote Wednesday. “Half of us have school choice because we have enough money. This will allow the rest the same opportunity.”

Democrats, including Gov. John Lynch, roundly opposed the bill, which they say would undermine public schools and downshift costs to local districts and property tax payers

“Public eduction is is the method by which every one gets an opportunity – this is creating a voucher system in disguise,”said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester. “Make no mistake about it – this is a voucher system .”

Sen Molly Kelly, D-Keene, said the bill clearly violated Article 83 of the state constitution, prohibiting tax money from going to “schools of religious denominations.

The state Supreme Court “has made it clear that tax expenditures may also be exemptions,” Kelly said, referring to the business tax credits companies would receive that contribute to scholarship organizations.

The bill allows businesses to receive an 85 percent tax credit for donations to the scholarship organizations, which would distribute the scholarships for students to attend private or religious schools. The money could also be used to defray the cost of a home-school education.

The scholarships could only go to families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level – about $70,000 for a family of four.

The program would be limited to $4 million in scholarships in the first year, then $6 million the next year and $8 million the third year. Money would also be allocated to limit the funding losses to school districts.

Due largely to the loss of per-pupil adequacy payments, state education officials estimate the program would cost school districts $3.6 million in its first year and more in subsequent years.

House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said the school choice law would raise the bar for public schools.

“It makes school choice a reality for many children who lack the ability to find an educational environment where they can thrive. This legislation is good for New Hampshire's future and will bring competition to our schools, which should improve their quality as well,” he said in a statement.

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Ted Seifer may be reached at tseifer@unionleader.com.


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