Scamman sees solution for school funding

W. Douglas Scamman Jr., the newly re-elected speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, comes from a long line of farmers and politicians. The son of a former House speaker, Scamman himself served two terms as speaker during his 22 years (1969-1990) as a state representative from Stratham. During the 1990s, he served as budget director under Gov. Steve Merrill and was later director of administration for the state Department of Transportation. He won election to the House again last November and was elected speaker in December after former Speaker Gene Chandler resigned amid a legislative ethics investigation.

Earlier this month he sat down with Jack Kenny of New Hampshire Business Review to discuss the new legislative session, his management style and chances for a permanent solution to the state’s education-funding dilemma, among other topics.

New Hampshire Business Review: Has the office of speaker changed much? Does it have as much clout as it used to?

Doug Scamman: I think the office is still much the same. When I was here before, George Roberts was speaker. He and I never got along too well. His approach to life was fairly heavy-handed. Mine is, you know, easygoing. I can lead you to the water, but I can’t make you drink.

Certainly if a committee came out in favor of an income tax, I’m going to be over there telling them they’re crazy and I’m going to fight them. But if there’s an issue we have some feelings about and we let them know how we as Republican leaders feel about it and they don’t agree with us, then I would expect the chairman would come over and talk with us and explain why they’re doing it differently. But if we can’t convince them and it’s a debatable question, I’m not going to go forward and tell the committee, “You’ve got to change,” because they’re going be with me most of the time. Their obligation is to vote the way they think, not the way I think.

NHBR: What are the favors that a speaker might grant or withhold?

DS: The strength of the speaker of the House under our parliamentary rules is that he or she appoints all the committees. The other power is appointing the committee of conference. If you’re a rep and you’re really wound up about something, you’re going to go through that session saying, “I don’t want to get the speaker mad at me, I may want to be on that committee of conference.” That’s just the way it is. That’s not something I look at using, because that’s not my nature.

NHBR: So are you saying that if a rep has opposed you for speaker or on some bill you thought was important, you don’t take that into consideration in committee assignments?

DS: No, not a bit. I remember in my first term as speaker, I asked Bill Hounsell of Conway to be vice chairman of Education. He said, “Doug, I can’t do it. Because when you come and tell me I’ve got to vote for something, I won’t do it. I’ll vote my will.” I said, “Vote your will. If you vote the way you think, that’s fine with me.” That’s the way I’ve always felt.

What I don’t like is someone saying, “I’m going to vote with you” and then they change their vote. I hate being lied to.

NHBR: Governor Lynch and his economic advisers have been talking about a $300 million revenue shortfall for the next biennium. Is that accurate, do you think?

DS: I think that’s the worst-case scenario — if revenue was as short as possible and expenditures were as high as possible, you might have a $320 million shortfall. The best-case scenario would be $180 million, assuming pretty good revenue growth and some control on expenditures.

NHBR: So how do we make up that amount, or find $180 million or more to cut?

DS: You look for ways of delivering the services more efficiently. I think you have to look at all the administrative staff they have and see if there’s some way you can streamline that process. You know, when I went to work as director of administration at DOT, I had 124 employees under my auspices, and when I left, there were 97. And the fact remains that as we got computers we could cut down on positions in administration.

You know, you can print a report in two hours that used to take one person three weeks to do.

NHBR: Are you in favor of repealing the state property tax?

DS: I absolutely support that. The Legislature should repeal the state property tax and we should pass a formula that includes some recognition of the relative income within a community. I think it’s criminal that in the last session they took $2 million away from school districts north of the notches, and from other school districts, and Amherst got $2 million more. I think it’s criminal. It’s not something you’d go to jail for, but it’s extremely poor public policy to give $2 million to the community with the second-highest per capita income in the state.

So do away with that $20 million, which is all we get from the state property tax from the donor towns. Take that $450 million from the other revenues that are out there and put that into a formula that pinpoints that money so it goes to the school districts that need it more. I think we’ll have enough, because places like Stratham, Amherst, Bedford and Hollis will get less.

NHBR: Do you think it’s likely the Legislature will get out from under the court’s jurisdiction on this issue?

DS: I think the Legislature will pass a bill this time, and the governor will sign it, that is a permanent proposal to solve this issue and will address it in a much better way than it ever has been before. And I believe the court will say, “You know, that’s what we felt they should do.”

NHBR: Mission accomplished?

DS: Mission accomplished.

NHBR: You’ve lived all your life in Stratham.

DS: So far.

NHBR: You still have the farm?

DS: Yes. No cows anymore. One of my twin sons does some hay and does some vegetables.

NHBR: You miss the cows?

DS: I miss seeing them. I don’t miss getting up at 5 o’clock to milk them. We thought about putting in a golf course, but I’m not going to borrow that much money. And if someone got sick or something and couldn’t get to work, I’d have to be out there at 6 a.m. so someone can make his tee time.

NHBR: So you’re looking forward to being back in the legislative grind?

DS: Sure. I have more time for it now. I don’t have to milk the cows.

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