Streeter seeks hike in aid for education

CONCORD – Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter said Tuesday that he would take a tougher tone trying to get more state education aid for his city in 2004 – and he endorsed a state tax increase to get it.

“Last year we were visible, but we weren’t loud and we weren’t obnoxious. The days of Nashua being a nice guy are over. We need to be aggressive about what the city does for the state and what’s at risk if our aid is cut,’’ Streeter said after addressing a legislative study committee on school funding.

Streeter met privately with Gov. Craig Benson and found him to be “receptive’’ to the city’s plea for more aid.

But he said Benson remains against raising the cigarette tax by up to $1 per pack to raise more education aid revenue.

“I found him receptive, but he said there’s only so much he can do with the Legislature writing the bill. He feels the same way about a tobacco tax next year as he did this year – forget about it – but we need to make the case because it’s warranted,’’ Streeter told reporters.

During the 2002 primary for governor, candidate Benson promised Streeter that aid to the city would not be cut from the $29 million that year.

But Benson let become law without his signature the controversial rewrite of the school aid formula that dropped Nashua’s aid to $26 million this year and $22 million in 2005.

Sen. Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, one of its chief architects, said Nashua was undeserving of additional aid as it is much more property wealthy than a city such as Manchester, which stands to get a $2 million increase in 2005.

“Nashua is doing a great job building its tax base,’’ he said.

Rep. Fred King, R-Colebrook, said Nashua went from getting no state education aid in 1998 to nearly $30 million five years later.

“I don’t see you as a loser,’’ he said.

Streeter told the lawmakers it’s more than Nashua being hurt by state education aid cuts. He reminded them the city pays the most in state business profits taxes and lottery sales.

“Nashua is a significant economic engine of the state and when it’s slowing down there’s an impact on the capital city here and the North Country small towns _down there’s an impact on the capital city here and the North Country small towns you represent,’’ Streeter responded to King.

Press secretary Wendell Packard said Benson tried to help Streeter and remains open to further suggestions.

“The plan Governor Benson proposed during the budget cycle would have kept Nashua schools whole. He still wishes that would have made its way through the Legislature,’’ Packard said.

Benson remains dead-set against any tax increase and is pressing for support of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which would cap state spending increases, Packard said.

“Opposition to any tax increases hasn’t changed one bit and it won’t,’’ he said.

Sen. Jane O’Hearn, R-Nashua, reminded Streeter that school enrollments in Nashua dipped slightly during the most recent years on which state education aid is based.

Gatsas said he is exploring a proposal to change the new law to give more aid to communities that face at least a 20 percent cut in aid during 2005.

The money would come from giving a little less to selected communities that stand to get large increases.

“It would be like a transition grant,’’ Gatsas said.

Nashua Administrative Services Director Maureen Lemieux said this would do the city no good because its aid cut in 2005 is 16 percent.

Amherst would be one of those communities to get more aid by limiting aid cuts in 2005 to 20 percent, Gatsas said.

“A cap of say 10 percent would at least do some good for us,’’ Lemieux said.

House Majority Leader David Hess, R-Hooksett, said House leaders are working on their own revisions that would not change the statewide property tax rate of $3.24 per $1,000 of value but alter how much bonus money communities get if their schools have large numbers of students who are poor, have special needs or speak English as a second language.

On Tuesday, the panel intends to complete a final report on what changes it would recommend to the 2004 Legislature by Dec. 15