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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Democrats holding all the cards for 'Keno-garten' bill

June 17. 2017 8:13PM

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU is going to need Democrat votes in the House and Senate if he hopes to see state funding for full-day kindergarten, one of his major legislative priorities, pass the state Legislature on Thursday.

But those votes are no sure thing, despite the fact that Democrats in Concord have for years promoted state-funded kindergarten.

Democrats feel they've been shut out of the budget process and despite their belief in the value of a K-12 public education, many aren't inclined to hand Sununu a bipartisan achievement he can campaign on in 2018.

They are also unhappy about the way the final bill structures the funding.

"This is something we are still talking about in the Democratic caucus," said Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, on Friday. "We haven't reached any conclusions."

Democrats plan to caucus on Tuesday at the end of a presentation on the proposed state budget, after which their direction might become more clear.

Democratic support will be needed in the state Senate as well. Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said on Friday that he expects at least four Republicans to vote against SB 191, the so-called "Keno-garten" bill that uses tax receipts from state-sanctioned Keno games to fund the program.

With at least 12 Senate votes needed to pass the measure, and only 10 of 14 Republicans who can be relied upon, Sununu needs at least two Democrat votes in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, on Friday tried to link Democratic cooperation to re-opening negotiations on the state budget - something that is likely out of the question at this point.

"This is a very difficult issue for a lot of us," he said. "This is a high priority for the governor, and something Democrats have fought for, but we need to know where the budget is going before we make a commitment one way or the other. If the budget is opened up ."

All of which creates considerable uncertainty heading into Thursday's vote in both chambers, despite earlier indications of a compromise that many Democrats could agree to.

The path toward Thursday's vote has been marked by political maneuvering from the get-go. House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, and House Finance Committee Chair Neal Kurk, R-Weare, are no fans of public funding for kindergarten.

According to Shurtleff, they and likeminded lawmakers attached Keno as a funding mechanism in the House version as a poison pill.

"By attaching Keno to kindergarten, they wanted to doom the bill to failure," he said on Friday. But many Democrat lawmakers previously opposed to Keno were willing to look past that and vote for the full-day funding.

About 70 percent of the school districts in the state, serving 80 percent of students, have already adopted full-day kindergarten using local property taxes to pay for the second half of the day.

The state currently offers school districts a grant of $1,800 per student for kindergarten enrollment. That's half the so-called "adequacy grant" of $3,600 for students in grades 1-12, assuming half-day kindergarten programs.

Democrats wanted the second half of the kindergarten day fully funded at $1,800, with the money from Keno going into the state's Education Trust Fund, and thought they had a deal along those lines.

Instead, the bill before the House and Senate on Thursday guarantees only $1,100 per student each year, linked entirely to the revenue from Keno.

"We're disappointed because we thought we had a deal. We thought we had an understanding about how we could move forward and help Gov. Sununu meet his campaign promise to do this," said Shurtleff.

Morse said Senate Republicans have compromised by agreeing to full-day funding for every community, not the targeted aid based on economic factors that Sununu proposed in his budget address earlier this year.

"If Democrats aren't going to vote for this, they are going to tank kindergarten," he said. "Every child is being considered the same in every part of the state, wealthy or poor. There's no targeting. That's a win for them right there. Getting more money for the second half of the day is a win."

Morse believes SB 191 is only the first step in what will likely lead to full-funding of the second half of a kindergarten day by 2020, but there's no telling what will happen if the bill dies on Thursday.

"We have never been closer to being (able) to pay for full-day kindergarten," said Majority Leader Jeb Bradley in presenting the amendment to SB 191. "For the good of our state, our kids and our parents, this is a reasonable compromise. It helps everyone."

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