NH school-funding amendment can wait

Ever since the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down the state’s inadequate method of funding public education in the 1990s, lawmakers have made more than 80 attempts to amend the state constitution to undo the so-called Claremont decisions.

All have failed. That includes last year’s compromise between Democratic Gov. John Lynch and Republican legislative leaders, which did not succeed in securing the 60 percent vote needed in the House of Representatives to place it on the November ballot.

But don’t expect a repeat performance in 2013. Apparently, the next campaign is going to wait a year – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Last week, state Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, announced that she would put off until 2014 her bid to amend the state constitution to permit lawmakers to target more education aid to those school districts that need it most.

The decision came after newly elected Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and a bipartisan group of state legislators reached a consensus that there was enough to do this year without trying to pass an acceptable constitutional amendment, too.

“Amending our constitution to allow the Legislature to target aid to communities and students who need it most must continue to be a top priority of the Legislature,” Stiles said in a statement last week.

“However, with difficult decisions ahead concerning the state budget, expanded gaming, and expanded Medicaid, issues that require our immediate attention, I have decided to delay introducing a constitutional amendment until the Legislature’s second session in 2014.”

We suspect that was fine with the new governor, who voiced her opposition to last year’s agreement during the campaign on the grounds that it gave the Legislature too much discretion in how to distribute school aid. She also made clear that crafting a more balanced amendment wouldn’t be an immediate priority of her administration.

And while her office said all the right things about keeping an open mind, it didn’t sound like she was chomping at the bit to lead the charge.

“The governor and Sen. Stiles have had productive conversations and agree that this session is not the time to focus on the constitutional amendment on education,” Hassan communications director Marc Goldberg said in a statement. “If there is a consensus around a workable education-funding solution in the future, the governor is willing to be a part of those conversations.”

In the meantime, we agree there are more pressing issues facing the new Legislature this year than once again trying to thread the needle with a constitutional amendment acceptable to conservatives (who reject the Claremont decision on its face) and liberals (who don’t trust lawmakers to support public schools adequately without it).

First and foremost, this includes adopting a two-year budget that lives up to the state’s obligation to fund essential services for New Hampshire residents.

That should keep lawmakers busy up through the end of the fiscal year June 30, particularly the anticipated spirited debates over casino gambling, Medicaid expansion, restoring funds to public higher education and how to deal with an underfunded mental health system, to name just a few.

Another bruising battle over a school-funding constitutional amendment can wait a year.