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As 'Kenogarten' Bill Heads to Final Vote, Members of Both Parties Conflicted

On Thursday, a proposal to spend state money on full-day kindergarten heads to a final vote.

The bill, which pays for additional state spending on kindergarten by taxing keno, is making for tough decisions on both sides of the aisle.

In his budget addressearlier this year, Governor Chris Sununu made state support for full-day kindergarten a signature priority.

“I’m proud today to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across this state.”

Sununu’s support signaled that this traditionally Democratic policy item might have a real chance of passing even with Republicans in control of the Statehouse.

In the months since that speech, lawmakers in both parties and in both houses have been haggling over what a system to provide state dollars for full-day kindergarten might look like.

The final compromise plan reached last week would give school districts who offer full-day kindergarten programs additional money per student.

But that increase in state spending would be paid for by legalizing and taxing the electronic gambling game, keno.

“We’ve never been closer to funding full-day kindergarten. I hate snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

That’s Republican State Senator Jeb Bradley, pleading with Democrats to accept the bill as a reasonable compromise.

But many Democrats are not happy. They wanted an extra 1800 dollars per student, which would fund kindergarten at the same level as every other grade.

But under the so-called ‘kenogarten’ plan that’s now on the table, districts would receive an additional 1100 dollars per student, starting in 2019.

After the first year, the amount would be tied to how much tax revenue keno brings in. So districts would get at least 1100 dollars per student but maybe more, depending on keno revenue from year to year.

Beyond the dollar amount, many Democrats like State Representative Linda Tanner have misgivings about funding kindergarten with gambling.

“You’re looking at something that you really believe in, really want to support, but then they put this little nasty part to it, where they’ve tied it to keno and it just doesn’t feel right.”

Tanner is still unsure how she will vote on Thursday. But her colleague, Democratic State Rep Mel Myler has already made up his mind.

“I’m going to vote against it. Because when you have a state that is cutting taxes, 20 million dollars’ worth, and then they say they don’t have enough money to pay for kindergarten – I think that’s wrong.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are also divided on the issue.

Republican State Rep Mike Moffett says he knows many of his colleagues won’t back the plan, but says he will in part because of Governor Sununu.

“I just thought the governor deserves support, this is a signature issue for him. And so I bent a little bit philosophically to support the governor.”

But paying for programs by taxing gambling does run counter the New Hampshire GOP’s official platform.

And some Republicans are wary of traveling down a path that might one day lead to required attendance to full-day kindergarten.

There are also political stakes attached to Thursday’s vote. Democrats have to weigh achieving a partial policy victory against handing a Republican governor a significant political victory.

So, what could have been a vote about just kindergarten is now also one about gambling, and Governor Sununu’s legacy.

We’ll know more about the fate of all three by the end of Thursday.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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