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Ed Funding Amendment Faces Big Test In House

NH Statehouse
Sara Plourde
NH Statehouse

Enacting any constitutional amendment is tough. It requires a three-fifths vote by both House and Senate, and two-thirds support from voters at the polls.  Add to this the fact this amendment deals with school funding and that lawmakers have killed 80-odd  Claremont-inspired amendments over the past 14 years, and the guardedness of even the boldest of lawmakers is understandable. “It’s not going to be easy," House Speaker Bill O'Brien says. "You know it would be very nice if we could get participation from across the aisle but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So this is going to be a hard task.”

Turning to Democrats isn’t something O’Brien does often or well. But the reality is that apart from Gov. John Lynch, who doesn’t get to weigh in this unless it reaches the ballot box, support from Democrats is expected to be close to nil. Mary Jane Wallner is deputy house minority leader.

“I have not heard from any Democrats who say they are going to be voting for it," Wallner says.

So, that leaves this in the hands of Republicans. Forty or so no votes in the house could sink it, and that’s a real possibility given the deep divide among conservatives.

“Oh year, because if we don’t change the constitution, the next court case is going to be a disaster," Rep. Spec Bowers of Sunapee says.

But others are lukewarm at best on the amendment.  Rep. Paul Mirski of Enfield, chairs the House legislative administration committee.

“This is a very difficult vote," says Mirski, adding, "People are thinking about it. I run into groups of people who are wrestling with this like hell. They don’t know what to do with it.”

Mirski doesn’t like that the amendment spells out that the state has a responsibility to maintain a system of education. Mirski isn’t the only committee chairman unwilling to commit to the amendment. Rep. Daniel Itse of Fremont, who leads the constitutional review committee, says by his reading the amendment is contradictory when it comes to the Claremont decisions. Itse sees it as enshrining the Claremont rulings, yet adds that “to a degree it refutes the assertions of the courts to their authority, so I don’t know.”

And neither do those doing counting the votes.

“It took me a long time to understand Claremont, and I’m doing this every day,” says Peter Silva, the House's new majority leader.  Silva got his job just last week after the resignation of former leader DJ Bettencourt.

Silva knows well that this issue has confounded a generation of New Hampshire Republicans, and says he’s been trying to keep his pitch simple: stressing that whatever happens in Concord on this issue may not be the final say.

“Let’s just get it to the people to vote on it -- that’s the attitude I’ve been taking," he says. "Because there are so many people that are dug in that you are not going to change them with facts.”

To make it out of the House, the amendment will need the support of 237 representatives. With an absence amounting to a no vote, attendance could be decisive. Republican vote counters say a gloomy weather forecast and the fact that its legislative portrait day will get most lawmakers to Concord. 

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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