NH Sen. Jeb Bradley - Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

Jeb Bradley 3/2/2012

In 2010, New Hampshire voters overwhelmingly chose conservatives to change directions in Concord. No wonder: state spending had increased by 24% from $9.36 billion to $11.5 billion and our fiscally prudent state was facing a prospective budget deficit of $800 million. Further fueling taxpayer misery: nearly 100 taxes or fees had been enacted or raised during those four years including the infamous LLC Tax which was so controversial it was repealed shortly after taking effect.

The newly elected Legislature tackled tough challenges. A budget passed that cut spending by 11% and while difficult cuts were made—they were necessary. Business taxes were reformed (SB-125) insuring state revenue collectors could not access an income tax on small business owners both providing a measure of fairness as well as enhancing job growth. The state’s largest and most costly program, Medicaid, was reformed (SB-147) by moving to a managed care model that when fully implemented will maintain or improve quality and save millions. Lastly, the Legislature after several unsuccessful efforts passed pension reform (SB-3 added to the budget) that will reduce the nearly $5 billion unfunded burden that rests squarely on the backs of taxpayers.

Education funding remains unfinished business.  A formula (SB-183) passed in 2011 ensured towns don’t lose education dollars and prevented return of the dreaded statewide property tax. But this 2011 formula does not resolve the decades old education funding dilemma spawned by the NH Supreme Court’s Claremont related decisions that requires the state to fund every dollar of the cost of an adequate education through equalized grants for every student across the state regardless of need. Sooner -- rather than later -- taxpayers will be confronted with an income tax or sales tax, probably both, to pay the Court ordered costs of education.

Changing or tempering the Court decision can only occur through a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature and enacted by voters.  After 14 years of living with the NH Supreme Court’s takeover of education funding, voters may have that opportunity in November 2012 if the Senate’s bipartisan constitutional amendment CACR-12, which has the support of Governor Lynch, is also passed by the House.

What would CACR-12 do and not do?  Why is CACR-12 so vital for NH’s future?

Most importantly, CACR-12 would put state and local elected leaders in charge of education funding decisions as well as providing the criteria for a quality education so necessary for students in an increasingly competitive world.

CACR-12 would give the Legislature the ability to target state education dollars to communities most in need. Since the Claremont decision of 1997, every new funding scheme is greeted with scrutinizing eyes ascertaining how every community fares in the race to garner state dollars.  Many towns with high income levels, a substantial tax base, and few at risk students have received huge state grants because of the court rulings that call for equalized grants regardless of need. At the same time other communities that everyone would agree need assistance due to larger numbers of at risk students, lower property values and income levels have lost funding. Such a system is not rational by any metric…nevertheless court decisions require this formula. CACR-12 would allow the Legislature to target state funding and make those difficult decisions based on need – not formulas.

Could the Legislature walk away from education funding?  NO!  CACR-12 allows targeted education aid but requires the Legislature to mitigate fiscal disparities among communities and educational opportunity among students. Is this a state takeover of education funding should the voters approve CACR-12?  Absolutely not! Before the Supreme Court’s Claremont decision, the Legislature had the authority to target aid and did.

At its heart CACR-12 provides the Legislature with full power and authority to do the job elected officials are supposed to do: make tough choices and set priorities. CACR-12 recognizes there are not unlimited taxpayer resources and puts elected officials not judges in charge of allocating those dollars.

Furthermore CACR-12 restores local control to school boards. The language of CACR-12 provides that the Legislature sets education standards and ensures accountability of those standards. Is this a state takeover of education?   NO! New Hampshire is not constitutionally a ‘Home Rule State’ and since 1963 NH has set minimum education standards, determining minimum classroom size, teacher student ratios etc. CACR-12 does not change the historical dynamic between Concord and NH communities….nor will CACR-12 in anyway impact homeschooling.

Will disgruntled NH residents still be able to petition the Supreme Court if there is dissatisfaction with the decisions of the Legislature regarding education under CACR-12?  Yes the Court will still be involved---but there will no longer be a presumption that every act of the Legislature is unreasonable as has been the case since Claremont.  This raises an extraordinarily high legal hurdle for the state to prove its actions are reasonable. This provision of CACR-12 returns the Court to its traditional role of opining on the constitutionality of laws, rather than the Supreme Court becoming a super unelected Legislature.

Some skeptics are not assuaged.  On the right, some decry any state or court involvement in education policy or its funding. On the left some maintain the State has total responsibility for funding education which should come from an income or sales tax….or both.

However the vast middle of New Hampshire voters is wary of both those outcomes. These voters seek a balance between state and local decision making and believe that the Court’s role is subsidiary to that of elected officials in setting education policy and making funding decisions. Most importantly the vast majority of NH voters recognize the NH Advantage of no income or sales tax has served us well for a long time – most recently in this deep long-lasting recession. Voters realize NH’s tax advantage is as critical to our future as educated students --- and worth fighting for.

After 14 long years…..it’s finally time to let voter’s voices be heard on education funding. The bipartisan CACR-12 represents the best opportunity to do so.