By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The state Senate unanimously approved a bill to maintain state education aid at levels school districts received during the 2019-2020 school year for enrollment, but voted along party lines not to include additional money for the state’s 80 most needy school districts.
Senate Bill 135 would adjust aid levels to the prior school year to blunt the drop in state aid due to the pandemic because of a drop in school enrollment this school year.
The bill is estimated to increase spending by $45.7 million in order to hold school district state adequacy aid at the current level.
Enrollment is one area impacted by the pandemic as is state aid based on students living in poverty determined by participation in the free and reduced lunch program.
During the current fiscal year, the state’s neediest school districts received $62.5 million in additional fiscal disparity aid based on property value and the number of low-income families in a district. That aid was a one-time program approved in the current biennium’s budget but would end.
Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, who promoted the disparity aid in the current budget, wanted to amend SB 135 to provide $36 million in disparity aid, but was voted down 14-10 along party lines.
Republicans argued disparity aid ought to be considered with other budget initiatives and not attached to a fast-tracked bill sending the message to school districts that help will be coming from the state.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said adding the amendment would send the bill back to Senate Finance delaying its passage and sending it to the House.
“If the goal is certainty for property taxpayers,” Bradley said, “this would destroy that.”
He noted there are a number of bills this session aimed at reducing property taxes and they should be considered together in light of the total budget package.
Bradley said the provision is already in Senate Bill 145 which had a public hearing this week and should stand on its own.
“To take this one piece outside the process, upends the process,” he said.
Kahn told his colleagues disparity aid would help towns in 23 of the 24 senate districts and listed the amount of money some communities would receive.
He said the aid would help the communities who have less than $1 million in property value for each student, noting the state average is $1.2 million per student.
Kahn said the town of Troy has the lowest property value per student at $477,000 and noted other communities with very low values including Claremont, Berlin and Lisbon.
He said discussions at some school district meetings would raise the property tax rate by $5 to $6 dollars up to around $25 or more to make up for the state aid communities stand to lose without legislative action.
“(The disparity aid) worked, in 63 towns tax rates dropped,” he said. “This is a small amount that has a major impact on the neediest communities in our state.”
SB 135 also addresses the loss of money for free and reduced lunch participation.
Gov. Chris Sununu in his budget address last week proposed addressing the problem with the free and reduced lunch figures.
The problem stems from the federal government’s change last year during the pandemic that essentially opened the free and reduced school lunch program to everyone.
However, the state uses the number of parents who enroll in the program to determine additional aid for students who live in poverty.
Many parents have not returned the form as the program is open to all and because of that the number of students enrolled has dropped significantly.
School districts stand to lose a total of $90 million in state education aid unless lawmakers act to restore the money.
The Senate voted 21-3 to bring state endangered species and critical habitat statutes in line with federal regulations, in an attempt to remove a bottleneck for applications to alter terrain for developments.
The application approval process has recently been switched from the Department of Environmental Services to the Fish and Game Department, which Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, said does not have the capacity to process and investigate all the applications currently pending.
The bill would set the state’s intent to minimize impacts on the critical habitat of endangered species and require both the Fish and Game Department and Department of Environmental Services to oversee the application approval process.
The bill requires Fish and Game to write the rules for the program and establishes a new dedicated fund for endangered species from any mitigation funds the state receives.
“No matter what we do,” said Watters, “there will still be court cases on this.”
He urged his colleagues to deal with the long-standing problem of Fish and Game Department capacity so the agency has the personnel needed to implement the program.
The Senate voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 68, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees.
“The goal of SB 68 is to support pregnant women in the workplace. It will reduce barriers to staying on the job while pregnant and to returning to work after childbirth,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Erin Hennessey, R-Littleton. “Additionally, this bill will give younger workers a reason to move or to stay in New Hampshire, knowing they will be supported during their pregnancy and afterwards.”
The bill passed the Senate last year but died on the table due to the pandemic and the limited time lawmakers had to finish their work after suspending action for three months.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 38 on a 18-6 vote to allow existing medical marijuana alternative treatment centers to convert to for-profit corporations or limited liability companies.
Currently they are not-for-profit enterprises.
By allowing the centers to make a profit, Bradley said, the hope is it will lower costs for chronic pain patients.
He said the bill would only apply to existing facilities and not future ones so there would not be a monopoly.
“This would not affect any existing regulations for cannabis,” he said, “and in no way authorizes recreational marijuana or homegrown.”
He said the bill deals strictly with corporate structure.
But Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, claimed the bill would allow mega marijuana corporations to come into the state, waiting “to prey on our children” when recreational marijuana use is approved.
“This is an opening for big marijuana,” he said, adding they would come in and buy up the existing facilities in anticipation of legalization.
The Senate will take its mid-winter break next week, but the House has scheduled sessions on Wednesday and Thursday at a facility in Bedford.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.