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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Finance flexes its muscle

March 18. 2018 12:28AM

State Rep. James McConnell has repeatedly raised questions about the power of the 26-member House Finance Committee to significantly change and even reverse the policy decisions made collectively by the 400-member House.

The Swanzey Republican, an unsuccessful candidate for Speaker, has tried unsuccessfully to get a bill passed that would restrict Finance Committee jurisdiction to the fiscal implications of legislation, and constrain its ability to reverse policy decisions already made by the full House.

The Finance Committee's power was on full display recently, as two important pieces of legislation already approved by the House went through the committee's Cusinart and came out as something entirely different -the school choice bill (SB 193) and the family medical leave bill (HB 628).

The House Education Committee worked on the Senate-passed school choice bill, SB 193, for the better part of a year and handed it over to the full House in January, where is passed 184-162. The bill calls for state-funded scholarships for certain children to attend private schools, including religious schools, or to pay for home schooling.

Called the "school voucher bill" by critics and "freedom scholarships" by supporters, the bill would be substantially changed by a proposed amendment being guided through the Finance Committee by Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

The changes include substantial reductions in subsidies to cities and towns that lose public school students; tighter qualifications for those seeking scholarships; more accountability for the private schools that get the money; and further delays in implementation.

A committee vote on the Kurk amendment was expected Wednesday but was recessed until April 4 to allow even more tinkering and a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes.

According to multiple sources close to that maneuvering, Kurk is opposed to the concept of the bill and is trying to kill it, but is under intense pressure from Gov. Chris Sununu's office and Republican leadership in the House.

The negotiations have been intense. Sununu apparently wants first-graders to be eligible for the scholarships, while some on the Finance Committee feel kids should at least have some experience with public school before they decide it doesn't suit them. First-graders were excluded, then included, then excluded again in an attempt to retain key votes.

It's now possible that Kurk will vote for interim study when the bill, in whatever form, comes to the full Finance Committee in April, and at least half a dozen other Republicans could follow his lead.

When asked about his alleged opposition to the bill on Thursday, Kurk would only say, "When I see the bill I'll tell you how I plan to vote on it, but I haven't seen the bill."

Meanwhile, Kurk's vice chair on Finance, Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, has presided over a complete rewrite of the family and medical leave bill, HB 628.

The revision was presented to Finance on Wednesday, to the surprise of Democrats, who voted against it. The Republican majority on the committee endorsed the new version of the law, which should go to a vote on the House floor later this week.

"It's a totally different model," says Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord, chief sponsor of the original version.

The Ober amendment takes what was a family and medical leave program administered by the state offering six weeks of paid leave, and converts it into a short-term disability program managed by private insurance companies offering four weeks.

"This could be implemented almost immediately, and families could benefit from paid family leave almost immediately," said Ober before the Finance Committee vote on Wednesday. "The bill that came to us could take a minimum of three years to implement, plus hiring 43 new staff at Employment Security."

Gile, who has advocated for paid family leave for the past decade, says the party line vote in Finance to support the Ober rewrite was disappointing given the bipartisan support the original bill got on the House floor.

Democrats will likely try to defeat the new version of the bill, and make a motion to vote yet again on the original, perhaps with an amendment of their own.

"It's the New York plan, and for New York with 20 million people it's a plan that makes sense," said Gile of the Ober amendment. "But they have the population and the number of insurance carriers that we don't have."

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