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Editorial: N.H. boosts aid for towns and schools, but ‘one-time money’ won’t fix underlying problem

  • Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, speaks to reporters in Concord, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, after lawmakers passed a two-year state budget. Joining Soucy were House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, left, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)


Thursday, October 10, 2019

Cash-strapped New Hampshire municipalities and school districts will get some relief under the $13 billion two-year state budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu late last month. But they also would be wise to exercise caution, because much of the increase in state aid relies on surplus revenue generated by the state’s two primary business taxes, not on permanent funding sources.

As staff writers Tim Camerato and Nora Doyle-Burr have reported, schools are in line for $138 million in new state aid, which will be especially welcome in property-poor districts such as Claremont, which have been hard hit in recent years by reductions in state assistance. But that new aid does not address the underlying problem, which is that the funding formula for distributing education aid fails to produce sufficient revenue for districts to fund the “adequate education” that must be provided to every student under the state constitution.

“We still lack a funding system for sustaining education,” Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague told the Valley News. “The state of New Hampshire has to come to grips (with the fact) that an equal and appropriate education needs a permanent, stable funding source.”

We are not holding our breath while waiting for New Hampshire government to live up to that responsibility, something it evaded for two decades since the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the state must provide the funds to pay for an adequate education for all students and do so through equitable taxes. This summer, a Superior Court judge ruled in a new lawsuit brought by several school districts that the current education funding formula is unconstitutional, a decision that is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The limitations of state aid that could expire along with the next fiscal year were articulated by Rep. Rick Ladd, the Haverhill Republican who is the ranking member of the House Education Committee. “I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to do that,” he said, “but the caution now is if we’re going to do this with one-time money, we’ve got to ensure that people don’t go on a spending spree and start hiring labor and all that.” The problem is, of course, that in order to improve, struggling school districts need to be able to hire talented educators and make a commitment to keep them employed, something difficult to do if added state funding might disappear when the economy slumps again, as it surely will at some point.

Health care providers also got a boost in the new budget, which was negotiated by the governor and legislative leaders after he vetoed the original budget passed by lawmakers in June. Medicaid reimbursement rates will rise by 3.1% on Jan.1, 2020, and again in 2021, an increase that is long overdue. That means an overall increase of $85 million in Medicaid payments when federal matching funds are included. But as Rick Adams, spokesman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, noted, the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate is among the lowest in the nation and doesn’t come close to covering the actual costs of caring for patients insured by the program.

So, as with education aid, the budget represents a step in the right direction, but only a step for a state that has one of the highest median household incomes in the nation and which has the resources to do much more.