By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Subcommittees of the House Finance Committee have decided to end or drastically reduce two education programs Gov. Chris Sununu touted in his budget address.
One is a student loan forgiveness program for those in high demand professions like health-care that would use revenues generated by the state’s scholarship program, and the other the governor’s School Infrastructure Fund intended to help schools improve internet connectivity and building safety.
Meeting Monday, the committee’s Division II approved an amendment that removed the loan forgiveness program from House Bill 2, instead allowing New Hampshire College Tuition Savings Plan Advisory Commission to decide how to allocate the funds between the UNIQUE program and the Governor’s Scholarship program.
Sununu proposed that 60 percent of the proceeds from the New Hampshire Excellence in Higher Education Endowment Trust Fund be used for student debt forgiveness, 20 percent for direct student scholarships and 20 percent to the UNIQUE program endowment.
University System of New Hampshire officials told the subcommittee last month the loan forgiveness would redirect about $10 million in low-income scholarship programs to the loan forgiveness program.
Division II Chair Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, said the change eliminates the loan forgiveness program in HB 2, and allows the commission to decide how to allocate the proceeds between the scholarship programs, noting that Division I had removed the money allocated for loan forgiveness from the section of the proposed budget it is crafting.
Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, said concern was expressed about one fund being drained into the other and wondered if the amendment addressed that concern.
Umberger said the decision would be up to the advisory commission which she had the utmost faith in to make the best decision for the state.
She said she understands there is still money available in the governor’s scholarship program.
“The governor wanted to show he cared about the cost of education,” Umberger said, “so there would be money available in government funds.”
Committee member Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, said he is not completely sure the loan forgiveness program is a bad idea, but the committee’s proposed change is probably the right thing to do.
The subcommittee voted 7-0 to remove the loan forgiveness program from HB 2.
School Infrastructure Fund
Sununu also suggested that $30 million go to the school infrastructure fund, which was established in 2017 with $20 million and the next year $10 million more was added.
Several members of the committee asked if there is a waiting list for additional projects, and Caitlin Davis of the Department of Education said there is.
She said it consists of 59 projects seeking $1.2 million.
Several members of the committee suggested those projects may be addressed with the $350 million in federal funds for schools included in the state’s $1.54 billion allocation from the American Rescue Plan.
Davis told the subcommittee the use of the money for schools was the most flexible she had ever seen for federal funds.
Umberger said she believes there are other more important things than using $30 million for the school infrastructure fund, and proposed they keep $1 million and use the rest for other line items they believe should be raised in the budget like special education catastrophic costs.
“There are better uses for that money overall,” Umberger said.
The subcommittee also agreed to move the dual enrollment program allowing high school students to take Community College System of New Hampshire courses for college credit.
The Department of Education currently administers the program but did not include money for it in its proposed budget and the governor’s budget proposal reflects that.
Umberger said the community college system has agreed to administer the program.
The subcommittee approved the change in administration on a 7-0 vote, but held off on voting on a proposal to provide $1.5 million a year for the program until it could determine if some of that money would be needed to cover the cost of administration.
The subcommittee hopes to finish work on its section of the budget by Friday.
Next week the full House Finance Committee will hear proposals from its three subdivisions and vote on its proposed budget.
The budget briefings for House members will be April 6 and the House will have to vote on the two-bill budget package by April 9.
Sununu proposed a $13.8 billion operating budget, a 5.6 percent increase over the current budget ending June 30, and later suggested $70 million in additional spending in light of growing state revenues.
In general and educational fund spending, Sununu’s proposed budget would spend $5.45 billion, a $41 million decrease from the current spending plan.
The House’s revenue estimates are lower than the governor’s so the House recommended budget is likely to be less than what Sununu proposed.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.