Gov. John Lynch has always said resolving the education funding dilemma in New Hampshire is a priority of his. If a constitutional amendment he supported were to have passed under his watch, it would have been the marquee achievement in his eight-year span as governor.
But it wasn’t to be — even when it looked like the table was set.
Lynch is the lamest of lame duck governors now, given the Republican majorities he’s been stuck dealing with the last two years. No Democrat could have expected much from their moderate governor in his last term. But there was common ground between Lynch and Republican leadership in the House and Senate regarding a constitutional amendment for education funding. House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon; Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, and Lynch all agreed on a proposed amendment — yet still it failed in a vote last week.
Proponents say the amendment would have given the Legislature the ability to develop a funding system to target aid to needy communities while still allowing for some form of judicial review. The current system requires the state to provide adequate aid for every student in every district, regardless of how much each district contributes to its own education system. The current system was created following the famous Claremont decision made by the state Supreme Court. Proponents of the current system see fairness in a system where each student is accounted for. But proponents of an amendment believe the Legislature should be able to develop a funding system on its own, without the courts calling the shots.
All of a sudden the opposition to this particular proposal was much larger and louder than expected. The opposition came on two fronts and they were hardly on the same team: Democrats were all but universally opposed, and the liberty-minded wing of the Republican House emerged in opposition as well. Democrats, aside from state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Rep. Peter Ramsey, D-Manchester, all voted against the proposal. The Senate had the votes to pass the amendment, but the House was 13 votes short.
It’s a failure regardless, but it is particularly noteworthy that Lynch wasn’t able to garner more Democratic support. Clearly, the Democratic party line was “no” on this. Both Jackie Cilley and Maggie Hassan, Democratic gubernatorial candidates, said they were opposed to the amendment. So while attention will certainly be paid to the fact that Lynch, despite his record four terms in office, couldn’t get O’Brien more votes, it’s also worth noting that 50 Republicans voted against O’Brien on the most important issue, save the state budget, of the last two years.
Working to pass an amendment
Last fall, Lynch appeared to catch O’Brien and Bragdon off guard when he released language he would accept in a constitutional amendment. After the hemming and hawing subsided, O’Brien took Lynch’s language, sponsored it himself and asked legislators to defeat it, which they did. The idea, from O’Brien’s perspective, was to eliminate two out of the three amendment proposals so lawmakers could focus on one. In defeating Lynch’s proposal, the House also defeated the Senate proposal. O’Brien’s amendment was left standing.
O’Brien’s original amendment in the House garnered the support of a supermajority; then, in the committee of conference process, the language was changed.
O’Brien said Lynch told him in the fall that Lynch couldn’t get him any votes. So if Lynch told O’Brien that last year, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Democrats opted against this.
Some have suggested the wording of O’Brien’s initial proposal, which received supermajority support, would have gotten the necessary support in the House. That’s probably true, but that amendment might not have received enough support in the Senate. And Democrats surely would have all voted against and campaigned against a more conservative proposal.
The only other issue O’Brien has had any difficulty with was right-to-work legislation. Other than that, when he’s supported legislation, Republicans in the House have largely followed suit. That it was the more liberty-minded, conservative members of the House who voted against it is interesting since O’Brien is seen as a conservatives’ conservative.
While Democratic candidates were opposed, the GOP gubernatorial candidates were both on board with the amendment. Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith both issued statements in support of the amendment. It’s worth noting both Lamontagne and Smith are considered particularly conservative Republicans.
The New Hampshire GOP jumped on the vote and Democrats’ opposition.
“It is obvious that Gov. Lynch no longer leads Ray Buckley’s party,” said Wayne MacDonald, state GOP chairman, in a statement. “Instead, Democrats singularly believe we should return to the days of out-of-control spending, pile up massive deficits and remain on a path toward an income tax.”
But Republicans have to thread the needle on this one. While the reasons might be different, plenty of Republicans campaigned and voted against the amendment. This was a divisive issue in the Republican Party. It remains to be seen if this was an isolated case or if this is evidence of a deeper chasm in the party. It’s likely a mere coincidence, but two weeks ago political analyst Dean Spiliotes said the D.J. Bettencourt scandal in the House might embolden some House Republicans to break ranks from the speaker.
Sure, education funding is still going to be talked about in the gubernatorial races. It’s still a big deal, after all. But if this legislature and this governor couldn’t get the proposal to voters, isn’t it going to ring a little hollow?