N.H. Lawmakers Put Focus on 2019

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2018 12:03:00 AM
Modified: 11/13/2018 12:03:04 AM

Lebanon — While New Hampshire continues to count ballots from last week’s midterm election, Upper Valley lawmakers already are planning for the upcoming legislative season.

With Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, legislators said they’re likely to attempt to pass bills that would raise the minimum wage, create a paid family leave program and legalize marijuana.

Meanwhile, Republicans focused on another issue that will loom large in 2019, one that has the potential to draw support from both parties — education funding.

“I would hope that is a bipartisan issue,” said Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown. “(Education funding) is a No. 1 priority that is hurting towns and cities the most.”

This election season, candidates from both parties promised to increase funding for New Hampshire’s public schools, which rely heavily on property taxes for funding.

The statewide property tax provides schools with $3,600 per students, but critics argue that’s not nearly enough to cover the $15,300 needed to educate the average New Hampshire child. Lawmakers also have taken issue with cuts to state stabilization grants, which were designed to cushion the effects of sudden demographic changes.

Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said the cuts are expected to cost his hometown about $85,000 annually. Meanwhile, Claremont, which has long been a poster child for the state’s education funding debate, is expecting a $251,300 decrease in state aid next year.

“I think that’s a real priority, to put the freeze on the stabilization cuts,” said Ladd, who had served as chairman of the House Education Committee.

Ladd took part in a Republican-led legislative committee that just wrapped up a nearly 1½-year look into education funding. The group, which issued its report on Nov. 1, identified concerns similar to those expressed by education advocates.

School tax rates per $1,000 of assessed value vary across the state from a high of $23.75 in Brookline to 34 cents in New Castle. Rather than education quality driving tax rates, it’s property values that make the determination, the eight-member committee found.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, and attorney John Tobin have argued the same point during their “School Funding 101” forums held across the Granite State this year.

The attorneys represented school districts during the landmark Claremont lawsuits of the 1990s, which cemented the state’s responsibility to provide an adequate education. Two decades later, they hope to either pressure lawmakers to reevaluate New Hampshire’s funding formula or garner support for another lawsuit.

“People in (property-poor) districts are sacrificing more for their kids,” Volinsky told an audience of educators and policy makers at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in September. “They’re running faster, they’re sacrificing more, but they’re still not able to keep up.”

Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills, said on Monday that lawmakers generally agree that a proper funding formula should allow property-poor communities to fund a basic education without overburdening taxpayers.

“The hard part is the revenue part,” Tanner, a retired teacher said. “The hard part is going to be ‘Where is the money coming from?’ ”

Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, agreed, saying the state’s current contribution is “just ridiculous.”

“We need to find a better solution,” he said. “We need to find a better way than on the backs of property tax payers.”

The legislative committee that just wrapped up its study recommends several fixes, although they’re unlikely to receive universal support.

The group called for an end to stabilization grants all together because that aid is determined using outdated 2011 enrollment information.

“Education dollars should go to support current students,” its report said.

And to make up for the lost funds, they suggested the state up its minimum contribution to $3,900 per student, and offer additional grants to property-poor communities.

If adopted, grants would offer an additional $2,500 per student in towns with an equalized valuation below $660,000.

That means Claremont, which has roughly $412,000 of property for every student, would qualify.

On the other hand, Canaan, which has about $790,000 in equalized valuation and also has struggled to support its school bills, would not.

The suggestions weren’t adequate for one member of the committee. Rep. Mel Myler, D-Contoocook, issued a minority report, saying more time is needed to review data and engage stakeholders “in a transparent process to assess just what type of educational opportunities we want for students in the state.”

Despite concerns such as Myler’s, legislators at least will face a couple of funding bills next year. Ladd and Smith already have submitted legislative service requests, or requests to have bills drafted, regarding stabilization grants and education funding.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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