4 candidates target 2 seats in Sullivan 8 House District race

  • Don Bettencourt (Courtesy photograph)

  • Hope Damon (Courtesy photograph)

  • Rob Lovett Jr. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Jonathan Stone (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2022 10:16:00 PM
Modified: 10/20/2022 12:02:57 PM

Four candidates, two Democrats and two Republicans, are looking to represent the newly drawn two-seat Sullivan 8 House District, which includes the Upper Valley communities of Claremont, Croydon and Sunapee.

Democrats Hope Damon, of Croydon, and Rob Lovett Jr., of Claremont, and Republicans Don Bettencourt, of Sunapee, and Jonathan Stone, of Claremont, will face off on Nov. 8.

Damon, 65, is making her first run for statewide office and was motivated to do so by the controversy surrounding the Croydon school budget last spring after the proposed budget was cut by more than half when a floor amendment passed at a lightly attended March school meeting. The budget was restored in a second vote in early July but only after a special meeting required more than half the town’s registered voters to turn out for a Saturday morning meeting.

“Croydon remains vulnerable to those who think that budget-slashing was a good thing,” said Damon, who plans to retire in December from her 36 years in business as a dietitian and diabetes educator. “I don’t think they represent democracy or government that works for ordinary people to help provide what we need. Schools are for the greater good.”

Damon also criticized Education Freedom Accounts, rolled out ahead of the 2021-22 school year, which implement a voucher-type model directing public money to private and home school students. She said they are “robbing” money from the public schools and next year $14 million in those accounts is going mainly to private and religious school attendees.

“I would overturn them, but that does not address the issues because we had a crisis in funding before (EFAs),” Damon said.

She said the statewide education property tax aims to make the tax structure more equitable, but Damon thinks the state needs to look closer at its revenues and spending priorities, such as million-dollar liquor stores.

“We need to look at what our values are and how we use the revenues we have,” Damon said.

Bettencourt, who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2020 and advances a philosophy of small government and keeping taxes low, said he disagrees with Fairness in Funding, a New Hampshire Coalition calling for greater equity in public school funding.

Bettencourt, 71, said Sunapee spends $31,000 a year to educate one student, while pointing to nearby Mount Royal Academy’s $7,000 base elementary school tuition as a private-sector comparison. (Mount Royal also includes more than $1,000 in additional fees or fundraising, according to its website.)

“We fund it by doing what they (Mount Royal) are doing. The assumption is more money for public schools but more money has not budged the needle on outcomes,” Bettencourt said. “Let’s help reduce costs by focusing on student achievement.”

Lovett, 36, works in information technology at Red River in Claremont. A former Claremont School Board member, he said his time on the board taught him that local school districts have limited impact on education, and that is one of the reasons he is seeking a House seat.

Lovett said the so-called “New Hampshire advantage” with low taxes isn’t an advantage to cities and towns like Claremont, which has the highest property tax in the state.

“I don’t think we feel this is an advantage anymore,” he said. “New Hampshire is last in the nation in state funding to public schools. It’s been 30 years since the Claremont decision, and it is time for the state of New Hampshire to adequately fund public schools.”

The Claremont decision refers to a lawsuit in which city’s school district sued the state, resulting in a 1997 ruling that determined the New Hampshire’s model for funding education was inequitable and unconstitutional.

Lovett would not support a sales or income tax unless it was certain to alleviate the current high property tax problem, but he does favor the “legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana as a revenue source to fund education.”

“The ‘Live Free or Die’ state is an ‘island’ with all of our immediate neighbors having already legalized it recreationally, and we continue to miss out on the opportunity that marijuana legalization presents,” Lovett said.

Stone, a retired police officer and corrections officer and current Claremont City councilor, said he sees issues come before the council that affect residents and would be a strong advocate for the communities he would represent. On education, Stone, who also is a partner in the Claremont firearms store Black Op Arms. views the problem as “two-pronged” — funding and quality — and also thinks too much time is spent in the Statehouse on “frivolous national agenda items that have no effect in New Hampshire.”

“I oppose a state sales or income tax. The funding issue is going to take a lot of work. I think the property tax needs to be looked at across the board to what is fair and equitable instead of community to community,” he said.

Also priorities for Stone in Concord would be fixing the bail reform law passed in 2018, which makes it easier for defendants to be released pre-trial.

“It tipped the scales in the wrong direction,” he said.

Stone and Bettencourt both support the 24-week ban on abortion passed by the state Legislature last year.

“Extending to 36 weeks, that is wrong,” Bettencourt said. “There is a baby in there. My view is let that be the discussion: When is it a baby and when is it something else so we are not taking a life away?”

Stone said the current law is appropriate and though he is “pro-life,” would not support an outright ban.

Damon and Lovett hold opposite views.

“I’m vigorously pro-choice,” Damon said. “I do not think government and elected officials belong involved in this most personal, private health care decision. I would want to protect reproductive rights.”

Abortions post-24 weeks are rare and often to save the life of the mother, said Damon, who also wants birth control made more available because it would cut down on the number of women seeking abortions.

“Every pregnancy should be a wanted pregnancy, and not funding Planned Parenthood is the opposite of preventing abortions,” she said. “Their mission is to help people have babies when they are ready.”

If elected, Lovett said he would work to “codify Roe vs. Wade into New Hampshire law.”

“Reproductive health care decisions are personal, private matters and should be made by patients in consultation with their health care provider,” Lovett said. “The government should have no role in reproductive health care decisions.”

On energy policy, Lovett and Damon both want to see the state take a more aggressive approach to increasing the state’s reliance on renewable energy sources as fossil fuel prices rise.

“Investing in clean renewable energy will allow us to drive down future costs, meet climate goals, protect our environment, and develop a clean energy sector with the jobs of the future,” Lovett said. “Most of New Hampshire’s infrastructure was built when oil was cheap. We need to start looking at alternatives for the future.”

Damon said he wants to see more investment in municipal solar and the creation of incentive programs for residents to consider solar as well, which in turn would save money.

Bettencourt said the country needs to move back to energy independence and, right now, renewables are not as reliable or less costly. With 64% of energy coming from fossil fuels, he said, forcing renewables on citizens will only increase costs.

“I think if we transition to renewables, we need to do it with extreme caution,” Stone said. “I just don’t know how viable they are and we don’t want to shift away (from fossil fuels) prematurely. We are not going to make any quick changes.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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