Guest Opinion: State must resist politicizing school funding

Over the course of recent years, leaders of our state’s government have worked to craft a solution to — quite arguably — the most challenging public-policy debate New Hampshire has grappled with in modern times. As a former House member and now in my fifth term as a state senator, I became involved in the education-funding matter long before the Supreme Court handed down its historic Claremont II decision in 1997.

As lawmakers at the state level, we have worked in good faith to solve an issue within the parameters of two very significant and immovable strictures — the New Hampshire Constitution, as judicially interpreted, and our constituents’ clear mandate against an income or sales tax. Indeed, even the leadership of the minority party now acknowledges the electorate’s firm stance against an income or sales tax. I am proud that the Senate, as a body, has held firm against any new or increased taxes, including a temporary cigarette tax passed earlier this year by the House.

In March 2004, the full Senate passed Senate Bill 302, an education-funding measure that would have lowered the statewide property tax rate from $4.92 per thousand to $3.24 per thousand in fiscal year 2005, and would have distributed grants based on a formula that more accurately reflected a community’s need. The bill also would have virtually eliminated the donor-community concept. Unfortunately, a subsequently issued opinion from the attorney general questioned the constitutionality of the plan as passed by the Senate.

This development left the Legislature with a small window of opportunity to revise SB 302 in an attempt to satisfy members of the state Supreme Court. The committee of conference that was charged with amending the bill did not have the luxury of time. In fact, the committee had only a matter of days to put together a plan on an extremely divisive issue that the entire state had been deliberating for years.

If lawmakers had not supported the conference committee’s report, we would have had to suspend legislative rules — a procedure that requires a two-thirds vote in both bodies. Then another two-thirds vote of both bodies would have been required for any subsequent actions and to pass whatever alternate plan might have been devised. In light of these likely insurmountable obstacles, the prudent course of action was to support the conference committee’s report.

Although we will maintain a donor/receiver system, I am pleased that communities will still enjoy a significant year-over-year reduction in their statewide property tax rate, and that the Legislature was able to craft a plan for the upcoming fiscal year that will pass constitutional muster. The conference committee’s report was adopted by the Senate with bipartisan support; in fact, 55 percent of Senate Republicans and 50 percent of Senate Democrats voted for it.

On the important matter of education funding, work remains to be done. Lawmakers and other stakeholders must acknowledge that we all share a common purpose – a quality education for all of our children. As statesmen and for the sake of taxpayers and schoolchildren, we must resist the temptation to politicize the issue. The Supreme Court has spoken, and the voters have spoken.

In the absence of a constitutional amendment — which the House defeated earlier this year — it is our duty as legislators to craft a solution that is consistent with the directive of the court and the mandate of the people. The challenge will continue to be achieving both of those objectives.

State Sen. Carl Johnson, R-Meredith, is president pro tem of the Senate.

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