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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: School choice bill fading fast

April 21. 2018 3:23PM

The prospects for passage of a school choice bill have gone from bad to worse as SB 193 limps toward the legislative deadline, now only weeks away.

There is still some hope that the House will pass the bill, which has already cleared the Senate and is a centerpiece of Gov. Chris Sununu's education policy platform. But a much-anticipated vote of House Finance Committee members last week could well be a harbinger of things to come.

Finance has such a broad mandate, and deals with so many bills, that it breaks out into three separate divisions to consider various bills that affect different agencies. Education falls to Division II, which voted 7-1 on April 17 to refer the "freedom savings accounts" bill to interim study.

In the second year of a two-year session, interim study means SB 193 is dead. The concept could be revived under a newly elected Legislature in January 2019, but it would be a new bill.

SB 193 would create a scholarship program from state education funds for qualified parents to send their kids to private schools, if they so choose.

There are five Republicans and three Democrats on Division II, and it would be a mistake to conclude that only one Republican on the committee supports SB 193. An earlier vote on a motion to endorse the bill failed 3-5, which is a more accurate reflection of GOP sentiment.

The two Republicans who voted with the three Democrats on the 3-5 vote were Finance Committee Chair Neal Kurk, R-Weare, and Rep. Robert Theberge, R-Berlin.

So the full Finance Committee of 26 members has received an interim study recommendation from its subcommittee, and is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday.

"I'm disappointed," said House Education Chair Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, the chief sponsor of the House rewrite of the Senate bill. "I certainly understand some of the financial issues they are talking about. I'm going to wait and hold my remarks until I see what happens in the full Finance Committee."

In the past several weeks of negotiations, every change made to appease one faction resulted in losses elsewhere.

"We've gotten to the point where we've looked at accountability, eligibility and finances," said Ladd. "We've tried to strike that middle path weaving through this minefield."

A negative vote from the full Finance Committee could still be overturned on the House floor, but Ladd is not optimistic about that outcome.

"That would be a long stretch," he said.

Meanwhile, both sides are mobilizing their forces for the stretch run. The public education advocacy group Advancing N.H. Public Education posted a call to members: "Most everything that can be said about SB 193 has been said. More important than detailed closely reasoned arguments at this point is just that Finance Committee members hear from parents and citizens."

That's probably a statement both sides could agree with.

Rising star gone

Many in the House were surprised to hear the clerk's announcement on Thursday that Yvonne Dean-Bailey, a two-term Republican representing Northwood, Nottingham, Deerfield and Candia, had resigned on April 12.

"It was my hope to serve for the remaining few weeks of the session," she wrote, "but unfortunately, I have transitioned to a new employer that requires me to work a standard, full-time schedule."

Dean-Bailey, a 17 year resident of Northwood, was first elected in 2015 in a tight special election, running on fiscal conservatism and individual liberty.

At the time of her resignation, she served as vice chair for the Election Law Committee and was appointed by Republican Speaker Gene Chandler as the co-chair of the House Republican Elections and Fundraising Committee to help recruit candidates for office.

The House has seen 19 vacancies since the 2017-2018 session got under way - 13 by resignation and six by death.

Only 10 have been filled by special elections, leaving the House nine short of its 400 vote total.

The turnover has been evenly distributed among Republicans and Democrats, leaving Republicans with a majority of 215 to 173 over Democrats, with three libertarians.

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