As we plan how we will spend our stimulus checks, the Governor, the N.H. Business and Industry Association and the N.H. Auto Dealers Association have decided, once again, to sing out of the same dog-eared hymnal. These three bastions of moderation, obfuscation and limited commitment have joined souls and, I suspect, wallets, to ensure that New Hampshire adopts a constitutional amendment that brings closure to the thorny issue of education funding. Closure, of course, is code for, not my job.
A friend lamented that Concord is defined by whining and finger pointing at The Court ("We are working under the constraints of Supreme Court decisions. Those constraints are preventing us from putting in place the best possible education plan." Lynch - State of the State 1/23/08). Sounds like a broken record? Remember this oldie but goodie uttered by then first-term Governor Jeanne Shaheen: "I disagree with the court's decision ." Damn court! Don't they understand no, nada, nope. How could they do this to us! (Note: The "us" ain't the schools, the kids or the property tax payer.)
Decades after political knuckle dragging produced half-assed results that did little to blunt the growing gap between rich and poor school districts, the aforementioned troika has the chutzpah to repackage the educational punt - targeted aid - and call it a solution. Shhh, don't you dare tell them that it was the revenue-starved Augenblick formula (the targeted aid plan of the '80s) that led to the contentious Claremont education lawsuit in the first place.
On its face the argument for targeted aid sounds soooo reasonable: "... it is not good policy to send the same base amount of education aid to every school district before we help the schools that really need it. ... That type of approach only widens disparities and maintains the status quo."
Yep, that was the same kind of claptrap former Governor Sununu promised in the '80s, producing little in the way of results. Targeted amounts delivered in one session become smaller amounts in the next. Legislative majorities targeted one group of needy communities in one biennium and different legislative majorities targeted other communities in the next term. Inconsistent support, political game playing - can't wait to make that concept permanent.
And what never saw the light of day was property tax relief for families forking over increasing percentages of their incomes to pay exponentially growing property tax bills.
As the Governor recycles his plea for a constitutional amendment, let me recommend a couple of pages he obviously missed in a report , "The Property Tax-School Funding Dilemma," authored by a New Hampshire economist. The report, unveiled to accompany the Governor's constitutional amendment mantra, appears to reinforce sending support to needy schools. But, the Governor ignores a pivotal point in the report: Education support/reform may be undermined if a state fails to provide targeted relief to those homeowners overburdened by property taxes. Local-level "circuit breakers" currently provide tax relief for the elderly or the military. Why not offer the same relief to other tax-paying families in need?
Before the Governor pressures the Legislature to embrace a flawed constitutional amendment designed to target aid to schools, maybe he should find the constitutional fortitude to demand a targeted aid plan for property individual tax payers. Fixing taxes first, just might make repairing schools a hell of a lot easier. NH
Arnie Arnesen is a longtime radio and TV talk host, who calls herself "the recovered conscience of political discourse." Her opinion pieces on this page invariably prompt at least one subscription cancellation.
This article appears in the March 2008 issue of New Hampshire Magazine