Fourteen Years of Claremont Failure is Enough
The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column on April 27, 2012:
A child born in Claremont in 1991 — the year in which the original education funding lawsuit was filed — will enter her senior year in college next fall. A baby born in 1997 — the year of the infamous Claremont II ruling, which found New Hampshire’s use of local property taxes to fund education to be unconstitutional — is now a freshman at Stevens High.
That’s how long three New Hampshire governors and several “political generations” of Legislatures have failed to reconcile the state’s commitment to public schools with the court’s decisions. That’s how long state taxpayers and towns have risked a court takeover of New Hampshire’s schools and a court-imposed broad-based tax to pay for whatever the court deems necessary.
Concord politicians have tried every half-measure. There was an ABC plan and a SMART plan and a blue ribbon commission. There have been referenda trial balloons and a passel of advisory opinions, the legislative equivalent of checking with mom before riding your dirt bike to Bobby’s house. In 1999, a Republican-majority House of Representatives passed an income tax and the state Senate followed suit. The tax died when they could not agree on a final bill. Two years later, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen promoted a sales tax instead.
In 2002 and 2003, frustrated Republican legislators passed resolutions — that’ll show ’em! — condemning the Claremont decisions. Gov. Craig Benson allowed a plan dependent on a statewide property tax and donor towns to become law without his signature. For several years legislative leaders and governors tinkered with school funding plans using Excel spreadsheets with redistributive formulas manipulated to buy off towns with large legislative delegations. “I choose to vote for my community,” Concord Sen. Sylvia Larsen said in 2004, “which is a very bad choice.”
The one option the Legislature hasn’t used is to send the voters a constitutional amendment to limit the court’s jurisdiction and to affirm that education policy and funding questions should be decided by local and state elected representatives accountable to their constituents. Occasionally an amendment has passed the House or the Senate, but never has the same version passed both bodies. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when you have eliminated every other possibility, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the best solution.
Both houses have passed different amendments this year, and a conference committee will meet in the coming weeks to reach an agreement on wording. This is not an issue in which the perfect can continue to be the enemy of the good. It’s going to require compromise. It’s going to require most legislators to hold their noses and vote for something they aren’t thrilled about.
Yes, the court wildly overstepped its bounds and misconstrued 18th-century state constitutional language about how the state will “cherish” — not fund, but “cherish” — public schools.
Fine. Set that aside. Get over it. Don’t get hung up on one word or comma. Those legitimate objections are not adequate reasons to oppose passing a constitutional amendment to resolve this issue once and for all. The exact wording is less important than one might think. The state constitution has been amended more than 100 times, and few would word those edits the same way today, yet they have worked. Put an amendment on the ballot in November. Let the people vote. If the broad-basers want to file a new lawsuit testing the new language, let them. If an amendment needs to be revisited down the road, a future Legislature can deal with it then.
Gov. John Lynch has not delivered many Democratic votes thus far, but the retiring governor is spending political capital advocating an unpopular position within his party. His support for an amendment is critical to achieving the necessary two-thirds vote of the people in November. This is a legacy issue for the governor, and he’s doing his part.
Conservative Republican representatives in the House need to do their part and show statesmanship. It’s not enough to say, “I’m for a constitutional amendment, just not this one.” A party with a near 3:1 majority in the House is expected to be able to assemble the 240 votes needed to OK an amendment.
We blew it in 1998. We blew it in 2003-2004. Let’s not blow it again.