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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bragdon school-aid proposal gaining

CONCORD – Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, got two-thirds of the way to political pay dirt Wednesday on a proposal to amend the N.H. Constitution and target more state aid to the neediest school districts.

After weeks of private talks, Bragdon produced new amendment language that won the support of both Gov. John Lynch and Ovide Lamontagne, the Republican front-runner who seeks to replace him in 2012.

“The whole goal here has been to come up with an amendment that has bipartisan support, and we’ve done just that,” Bragdon said.

The Senate Internal Affairs Committee endorsed the changed proposal (CACR 12) by a 4-1 vote, with Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord still in opposition.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, has also endorsed the Bragdon proposal.

The Senate will take up this proposal at its next meeting, either Feb. 8 or Feb. 15, Bragdon said.

Bragdon said he purposely crafted an amendment that would suit Lynch.

“The plain reality is we’ve got a governor who is at 70 percent approval rating,” Bragdon said. “If the governor is not in support of it, this is not going to pass.”

Lynch had a favorable response to the proposal.

“On its face, this amendment appears to accomplish the goals of affirming the state’s responsibility for education, and providing the flexibility we need to effectively target aid to the communities and the children who need it the most,” Lynch said in a prepared statement.

Lamontagne, a former state Senate legal counsel, was among a team of legal advisers at times working with Lynch on the ideal language that also included former Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas and Bedford constitutional law expert Eugene Van Loan.

“The amended language contained in CACR 12, which the Senate Internal Affairs Committee approved today, contains a very reasonable approach in returning local control over education funding while allowing the Legislature to direct targeted aid to disadvantaged school districts,” Lamontagne said Wednesday.

The plan does not yet have the backing of House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, who had objected to an amendment that included the state having a “responsibility” in the area of school aid and standards for all public programs.

“The speaker made it clear to me that I needed to build broad support for an amendment to convince him to bring an amendment back before the House,” Bragdon said. “We’ve done that.”

Last spring, the House and Senate endorsed competing plans. Legislative leaders opted to stick to their own ideas and not have House and Senate leaders meet on whether they would compromise between the two plans.

This dispute hangs on a few words that are important to one of the three parties.

It all comes down to how much power to give to the Legislature going forward.

Lynch had proposed last October to give the Legislature the “authority and responsibility” on education finance and related matters.

O’Brien’s House-passed proposal would give lawmakers the “authority and full discretion.”

Bragdon’s proposal was a hybrid of the two, endowing the Legislature with “full power and authority and responsibility” on school finance, education standards and making local schools accountable to taxpayers and parents of public school children.

In turn, Lynch had to accept “full power” that Bragdon described as a continuation of Article V in the Constitution that gives the Legislature “full power and authority” to make laws.

Efforts to approve a constitutional amendment have consistently failed in the House of Representatives since the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1998 that eliminated the over-reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools.

An amendment needs a three-fifths majority vote in the House and the Senate to go onto the ballot in November.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.