Capital Comments: Lawmakers Anticipate School Building Aid Study

Senator Bob Odell was joined by Richards School students Ethan Houde (left) and Dylan Palmer in the Senate Chamber as part of Read Across America on March 3. The annual event brings students to Concord to share a morning reading and talking about their favorite books with their senator. As part of the tradition, everyone dons Cat-in-the-Hat style hats.

Senator Molly Kelly (Keene) is the Chair of the Senate Education Committee.  And she also has been heading up a study committee on New Hampshire’s school building aid grant program.

At our last Senate session, she brought to the floor a bill (SB 486) to suspend state building aid grants to school districts for the next fiscal year beginning on July 1.  In effect, the state is going to take a time out to assess the building aid program and determine if the distribution formula should be changed.

Any school building projects approved at the local level before the end of June will be fully funded by the state based on the current formula.

The school building aid program has been very successful for over half a century.  First begun in 1955 when the student population was growing rapidly as the children of the World War II generation were entering school creating the need for new school buildings.  State aid for new buildings and renovation projects pays for a portion of the principal repayment each year on outstanding bonds.

There is general agreement that the current costs to the state are unsustainable.  The number of projects, about 25 on average each year, and the costs of projects have been increasing even as student population is declining.  In 1990, the appropriation for school building aid was $10 million.  In 2009, that figure had grown to $44 million.

Three things in my opinion have shaken up the discussion around school building aid.  First, there is the state’s bonding of school aid, or as some would say, “bonding the bond.”  For over 50 years, the state paid its share of the annual bond principal payments from its general fund.  Then, with the effect of the recession upon us, the Governor asked and the legislature agreed, to bond the costs of the state’s payments.  That means we created debt through the issuance of bonds.  State Treasurer, Catherine Provencher, has raised warning flags that it is not wise to continue that practice in the future.

Secondly, the high costs of some new schools raise concerns.  Nashua, for example, built two new high schools that cost $100 million each.  Other new, expensive schools are sometimes referred to as “palaces” and raise questions about how much the state should be spending on these expensive facilities.

And third, while there is a sliding scale for allocation of funds, Senator Kelly pointed out “that the schools that need school building aid the most may not be the schools that are actually receiving aid.”

The Senate passed the bill by a voice vote.  Anticipating a similar response in the House, Governor Lynch will sign the bill into law.  And the School Building Aid Study Committee will continue its work and bring back their recommendations by year end.  Representative Randy Foose (New London) serves on the study committee.

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Consensus seems to be surrounding repeal of two taxes put into the budget during last June’s late night action by the committees of conference on the budget.  The House passed a bill to repeal the extension of the meals and rooms tax to campsites last week.  The Senate put a similar bill (SB 474) on the table.  Either by taking SB 474 off the table and voting on it or through some other tactic, one senses there is solid support for repeal of the campsite tax.

The repeal of the so-called llc tax now has the support of Governor Lynch.  There is plenty of legislative and public support for that repeal and the Senate will pass a bill similar to what the House has done in the next two weeks.

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At the end of Senate sessions, the Senate President asks if there are announcements or Rule 44s.  Senators announce schedule changes for committees or let their colleagues know of upcoming events or activities that may not have made it into our weekly calendar.

Rule 44s are speeches not relating to legislation.  They may be personal or recognize the accomplishments of citizens or groups from a Senator’s district.  All too often, they are about a soldier who has been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  At our last session, several of us joined to recognize three unique and special New Hampshire women who had recently died.

There were speeches recognizing Gale Thomson.  She and Governor Meldrin Thomson were the last first family to live in Bridges House in Concord. The Thomsons frequently entertained legislators at Bridges House with pancake breakfasts.  The pancakes made by Gale Thomson became part of the Thomson family legacy.  She was remembered as a wonderful and graceful first lady of New Hampshire.

Doris Haddock, better known to us at Granny D, was a regular presence in the State House.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Senators wrote messages in a book to help celebrate her 100th birthday.  She marched across American and worked the state legislature to further campaign finance reform.  Several Senators rose to remember their personal times with Granny D.

I had the opportunity to remember Mary Jo Ray who had lived for the past dozen years in Westmoreland.  At 114, she was the oldest person in the United States when she recently died.  Not many State Senators can claim that one of their constituents is the oldest person in the country.

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