Sullivan County House District 3 candidates talk school funding, abortion, energy costs

  • Virginia Irwin

  • Skip Rollins

  • Steven Smith

  • Walter Spilsbury

  • John Streeter (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 10/29/2022 12:41:06 AM
Modified: 10/29/2022 12:40:51 AM

Sullivan County Democrats are hoping to unseat the three Republican incumbents in Sullivan House District 3, which represents Charlestown, Newport and Unity, in the Nov. 8 election.

Former state Rep. Virginia Irwin, of Newport; John Streeter, of Charlestown, a candidate for the House in 2018 and 2020; and former Newport School Board Chairwoman Linda Wadensten are challenging Republicans Steve Smith and Walter “Terry” Spilsbury, both of Charlestown, and Skip Rollins, of Newport. Democrats currently hold a 7-6 majority in the county delegation.

On the long-standing dispute over state funding of K-12 education, Spilsbury, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, agrees the state has an “essential role” to play in funding education for grades K-12. But he opposes broad-based taxes and said the statewide education property tax, known by lawmakers as SWEPT, is also the wrong approach.

“To say the state will increase funding but doing it with a supplemental tax on real estate is ludicrous,” he said, adding that he wants to see the statewide tax phased out and replaced with other sources, reciting a list of taxes from the business enterprise and business profits tax to meals and rooms or tobacco.

“I don’t think there is one solution,” said Spilsbury, 67.

The Ways and Means Committee needs to determine: “Can we replace the $363 million (from SWEPT) from other sources without a consumption or real estate tax?” Spilsbury said.

Both Spilsbury and Smith, 58, a realtor, said sending $100 million of the SWEPT money back to school districts last session was the right move to ease the local property tax burden, but both want to see it phased out.

Smith also said a 2018 report on defining adequacy that itemized education costs should serve as a starting point to come up with an adequacy figure. He calls the current formula a broken system that some want to keep putting money into. Some ideas Smith mentioned were to target more aid to communities in need and not send money to property-wealthy districts, and to take more money from the general fund for education.

Rollins, 69, is running for his sixth term. He staunchly opposes a broad-based tax unless it comes with a constitutional amendment that states the money must go to education to reduce the property tax. He said Vermont instituted a sales tax and later an income tax with the purpose of spending them on education but eventually used the revenue to pay other state expenses.

Regarding marijuana legalization as a revenue source, Rollins said it must be sold only by the state — similar to alcohol — so New Hampshire gets all the profits. He said estimates are it could raise more than $400 million, and half of that could go toward education to reduce the property tax.

Both Irwin, who was a state rep from 2012-2018, and Streeter want more state education funding as well.

“We need to look at funding some piece of public schools,” said Irwin, adding that a statewide teachers’ salary or picking half the cost of special education would help alleviate the pressure on the property tax.

“It may involve another funding source,” she said. “Everybody panics when there is talk about a different tax structure, but we need to look at our tax structure because right now it is not working well with cities and towns.”

Streeter said his experience on the Fall Mountain School Board motivated his run for the House in 2018, after he saw the struggles school districts have trying to pay for education while not increasing local tax rates. If elected, he wants to put together a coalition that will agree to increase the education adequacy grant to $10,000 per student. The state now pays around $4,000.

“It is just a matter of priorities,” Streeter said. “I’m not going to push for more taxes, but I will push that we reallocate the resources we have to fund education more appropriately.”

If school districts saw a sharp drop in local tax rates with a higher adequacy grant, the voters in those districts could decide if and how to spend taxes that had been devoted to education.

On the issue of abortion in New Hampshire, where last year the procedure was outlawed after 24 weeks with certain exceptions added since, the candidates hold different opinions.

Streeter and Irwin said it is a decision that should be solely between a doctor and patient, while Smith, Spilsbury and Rollins said the state law lines up with what most voters want.

Streeter recalled President Bill Clinton’s comment in the 1990s that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

“That is how I feel about it,” he said. “I would make it less restrictive because I think it is a decision that should be made between a woman and her health care provider.”

Irwin said she would work to ensure “reproductive rights are guaranteed.”

“If that means codifying (Roe v. Wade) in the constitution, I would not oppose that,” she said.

Rollins wants to protect a woman’s right to choose up to 24 weeks but beyond that is “barbaric” he said, adding that polls show 80% of the country opposes third-trimester abortions.

During his campaigning, Spilsbury said he has had only one voter ask about abortion and said Democrats are making it a political issue to stimulate their base.

“As far as I’m concerned, the law is in a good place right now and there is no need to tamper with it,” Spilsbury said. “It is a delicate balance, and it would be wise of both parties to accept that balance. New Hampshire’s law (24 weeks) joins 44 other states that are already there.”

Smith said most people oppose abortions later in pregnancy.

“It would be prudent to leave it for a few years to see if people are still happy about it,” he said.

Addressing the high costs of electricity and fuel oil will likely be an issue for the Legislature when it returns in January. The bipartisan passage of HB 2023, co-sponsored by Smith, targets aid to people struggling to pay electricity and fuel costs this winter, but it does not address the drivers of those costs.

“Sure, renewables are great and if we move that way, it may have an impact in 20 years, but I am worried about now,” Smith said. “I don’t like the term ‘investing in renewables.’ I don’t want to take money and give it to a company that may or may not be successful.”

Rollins argued that “forcing green energy” on residents too quickly will only result in higher electric rates.

“Renewables are very expensive,” he claimed.

Streeter would support more incentives for renewables.

“I think renewables, if incentivized properly, could play a much larger part in the energy equation,” Streeter said. “We don’t do that enough in New Hampshire.”

Spilsbury said incentives may sound nice but they risk distorting market dynamics.

“Let’s let the market and supply and demand move us gradually in the direction of diversifying our energy sources with wind, solar, hydro,” Spilsbury said. “But let’s not jump the gun and create edicts.”

Irwin said Republicans have stopped expansion of net metering and won’t fund alternative sources or provide more incentives.

“We need to look at alternative fuel sources and revisit net metering and change the formula,” she said. “We have to figure out some other way to provide for the power that we need. We can increase solar with incentives.”

Wadensten was unavailable for comment.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at

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