School voucher program added to budget

Also: Republican tax cuts stay intact

By: - May 26, 2021 5:00 pm
State House dome blocks out the sun

The committee attached the proposal, known as the “education freedom account” program, to House Bill 2. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A controversial proposal to allow New Hampshire parents to use public funds for private school tuition will move ahead next month, after the Senate Finance Committee added the program to the state budget.

Voting along party lines Wednesday, the committee attached the proposal, known as the “education freedom account” program, to House Bill 2, the policy accompaniment bill to the state’s budget.

The vote was part of a wave of last-minute amendments to the budget Wednesday, from new abortion restrictions to psychiatric hospital funding. And it represented one of the strongest areas where Gov. Chris Sununu and House and Senate Republicans might agree as the budget enters its crucial final phase.

Other areas could be trickier to find agreement. Senators added a measure to ban abortions in the state after a fetus reaches 24 weeks, directly challenging Sununu, an avowedly pro-choice politician. And they restored some spending that Sununu had asked for but that House budget writers had removed, including $30 million for a long-awaited psychiatric hospital and $6 million for the governor’s scholarship program. 

Senators on the committee spent most of the day working through the pile of amendments, racing to complete their work ahead of a committee vote on both of the state’s budget bills on Friday. According to Senate rules, the budget must be passed by the full Senate June 3, after which the House and Senate must hammer out disagreements in a “committee of conference.”

Senate Republicans have been squeezed on two sides by House Republicans – who have increasingly objected to the Republican governor over his use of emergency powers – and Sununu, who had called for the Senate to reverse some of the additions made by the House. 

The choices made Wednesday could have knock-on political effects in the negotiations to come. Here are some of them.

Voucher-style program advances

Senators voted Wednesday to add into the budget a voucher-like “education freedom account” program, bringing back to life a proposal that the House had shelved earlier this year.

The program, which has been floated in New Hampshire for years, would allow parents of a certain income level to remove their children from a public school and take the state’s per-pupil funding with them, allowing them to spend the money on a range of areas to supplement their child’s education. 

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An earlier version of the bill has been retained by the House Education Committee, after Republican members said it needed more time. But Republican senators and school choice advocates had pledged to continue the effort later this year, arguing the bill would expand options. 

Democrats have decried the bill as an improper use of state funds that would deprive traditional public schools of needed funding and lead to higher property taxes. 

The bill could have gubernatorial support. Sununu has supported efforts to pass education savings accounts in the past; in 2018, a Sununu-backed bill to create a voucher-like system cleared the Senate but came up just short in the House. 

This year’s bill is far more expansive than the previous version, with a higher income threshold of eligibility and a broader array of services parents can spend the money on – from tutoring services to school laptops. 

Abortion bills added to budget

The Senate Finance Committee also added to the budget a provision to ban abortions after 24 weeks, sending Sununu a stark political test as the budget works its way to his desk.

In a 5-2 vote Wednesday, the committee added the ban, which had passed as a standalone bill by a Senate committee on Tuesday. 

But the committee also rebuffed House Republicans’ efforts to target the funding of abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood. In the same amendment, the committee stripped out language that would have required abortion providers to physically separate their abortion services from their other services in order to continue funding. 

Caps to governor’s emergency powers uncertain

Among the more contentious pillars of the budget passed by House Republicans in April was a series of new restrictions on the governor’s emergency powers.

After more than a year in which the state has been subject to an emergency order by Sununu that has allowed the executive branch to bypass the Legislature on key spending decisions, House Republicans have sought to rein in the emergency order power. A provision in the House budget policy bill would have allowed the governor to declare a 21-day state of emergency and renew it one time without legislative oversight; afterward, the governor would need permission from the Legislature, provided there were a quorum.

Senate Republicans chose to remove that provision Wednesday. But the issue isn’t completely dead. A standalone bill that would carry the same restrictions, House Bill 417, is up for a vote on the Senate floor on Thursday. 

Republican tax cuts stay intact

If Sununu’s use of emergency powers have been an ongoing thorn, his plans to lower taxes in New Hampshire have inspired broad Republican support. On Wednesday, that support stayed steady. 

Attempts by Democrats on the Finance Committee to remove reductions to state business taxes, the meals and rooms tax, and the interest and dividends tax fell short Wednesday, with each effort voted down, 2-5.

The current version of the budget would reduce the business profits tax from 7.7 percent to 7.5 percent, drop the meals and rooms tax from 9 percent to 8.5 percent, and lower the 5 percent interest and dividends tax by 1 percent a year until it is eliminated entirely. 

Psychiatric hospital funding restored

House Finance members cut a number of funding initiatives in Sununu’s budget – and added a $50 million “back-of-the-budget cut” to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now, the Senate has brought back one of those initiatives: the funding of the state psychiatric hospital. 

In 2019, a budget agreement between State House Democrats and Sununu passed $8 million in appropriations to allow for the eventual construction of the hospital, which has been pushed for by health care advocates as a means to reduce a backlog of mental health patients in emergency rooms. 

The Senate amendment would restore $30 million toward the construction of a 24-bed facility in the state, money that the House had cut entirely.

Meanwhile, an amendment from Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley would slow down a House effort to disband the Sununu Youth Services Center – the state’s juvenile detention center that has been shaken by scandal in recent years. 

The House had pushed for the center to be closed for good by July 1, 2022; Bradley’s amendment would push that closure date back to March 1, 2023. 

The center has come under harsh scrutiny in recent years, first for the use of restraints against children that the state’s Office of the Child Advocate brought to light in an exhaustive report in 2018, and lately with the prosecution of six former staff members accused of rape at the facility in the 1990s.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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