By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Budget writers could not agree Tuesday on a plan to merge the state’s two higher education systems but hope to find a solution on Wednesday.
Division II of the House Finance Committee reviewed two amendments that would change how the proposed merger would proceed.
Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled his merger plan in his budget address last month. His proposal would establish a new board of trustees to oversee the two systems for the merger beginning July 1.
The two House committee amendments seek to slow down the process and instead would name commissions to explore the merger and leave both systems and their board of trustees intact for the next biennium which ends June 30, 2023.
The two amendments reflected the political divide on the merger as Democrats sought a study commission to determine if the merger should go forward using a report by a subcommittee of the House Education Committee as its guide.
The other amendment, which has support among Republicans on the committee would establish an 11-member commission to develop legislation by Jan. 1. 2022 that could be implemented in next year’s legislative session if there is sufficient support.
Subcommittee chair Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, asked the sponsors of the two amendments to fine tune their proposals and be ready to discuss them again Wednesday morning.
Rep. Leonard Turcotte, R-Barrington, said he tried to encompass everyone’s suggestions into his proposed amendment so everybody was happy but not 100 percent.
“This document is a compilation of all the competing interests,” he said, “and there are a lot of competing interests in this.”
Turcotte’s amendment would create a commission that included four members from the University System of New Hampshire including the chair of the Board of Trustees and the chief executive or administrator, four members from the Community College System of New Hampshire, including the chair of the Board of Trustees and the chief executive or administrator, one member appointed by the governor, one by the Senate President and one by the House Speaker.
Umberger suggested the two legislative members be dropped and instead those two slots would be filled by the governor.
Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, proposed an amendment with a study commission of 15 members, five appointed by the USNH, five by the CCSNH and five by the governor.
She also suggested a member of the regional college accreditation organization be appointed and a representative from the 65 by 25 group, which seeks to increase the number of state residents who have post-secondary education to meet the growing demand for an educated workforce.
Umberger and Turcotte balked at including the representatives as members of the commission but both indicated they should be involved in the investigation.
Turcotte originally set the reporting date as April 1, 2022 for his commission to report to the legislature, but others said they believed it should be Jan. 1.
Under his proposal the commission would also serve as a search committee for a new chancellor for a unified system if that is the recommendation the members adopt.
“I believe the structure of immediately setting up a new 15-member board of trustees is not in the best interest as the (merger) issue has not been at the forefront,” Turcotte. “The citizens of New Hampshire deserve a look at this and it should be explored in more detail than what was put into House Bill 2.”
Heath said while Turcotte’s amendment is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to slow down the process and actually determine if a merger is a good solution to problems facing both systems.
The situation is very complex and more time is needed to shift through the details before deciding to move forward, she said, noting just negotiating with the 11 unions involved in the two systems will be very difficult.
“We have been underfunding the university system and the community college system for years, and they have struggled and had to raise tuition to some of the highest in the country,” Health said. “Much of this situation is our own doing, the cost of tuition is a burden we need to carry as a legislature. We have not done our due diligence for them.”
Rep. Kate Murray, D-New Castle, said Turcotte’s proposal was a short-term plan when the members need to be involved more long-term.
“They need some skin in the game,” she said, noting she had concerns about the commission picking the chancellor when that ought to be the board of trustees’ job.
“We talked earlier of a commission created to take steps (toward unification) and the reasons for those steps,” Murray said. “It is complicated and this is going to take some serious thought.”
Turcotte referred to the findings of the education subcommittee as a guide for the commission as it does its work.
“As I read through the first six pages of excellent questions without answers,” he said, “that illuminates how many issues are out there and how important getting this right will be.”
Catherine Provencher, chief administrative officer of the university system, suggested removing the chief operating officers of the two systems from the commission in Turcotte’s amendment and suggested the reporting date by Jan. 1 because of the urgency of the situation.
But Susan Huard, interim chancellor of the community college system, disagreed saying the chief executive officer for her system would bring expertise to the work and help orchestrate the resources needed for the commission.
The division plans to include $1.5 million for the commission to complete its work in the state operating budget.
Umberger said whoever is chosen for the commission will have to commit to the work and have the time to put into the process.
“People think we are rushing it,” Umberger said, “people think we won’t be able to give it what it needs to be given.”
That is why she wants the $1.5 million included in the budget.
“We all agree none of us have a complete understanding of what’s going on at both the university or community colleges,” she said.
She asked Heath and Turcotte to work on their amendments so they could meet Wednesday morning and continue the discussion and hopefully arrive at a conclusion.
“It seems to me even though I had hoped to come to a conclusion today and take a vote on something,” Umberger said, “we are not there yet.”
Both the university and community college systems have seen declining enrollment as the number of high school graduates have decreased in recent years.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need to make changes in the two systems as declining revenue from tuition and room and board have impacted the systems’ sustainability into the future.
The merger discussion has been ongoing since last year, but garnered more attention when Sununu proposed merging the two systems in his budget address last month.
Since that time, opposition has come from many fronts including former trustees who said it needs careful examination before moving forward.
Others are concerned the community college system would lose its voice, affordability and flexibility in a merged system which they believe would be dominated by the University of New Hampshire.
But Sununu has pushed for a quick resolution through the budget process, something House budget writers have balked at doing.
The House Finance Committee will make its final budget decisions next week and present its plan to House members April 5. A final House vote will have to be by April 7.
Then the Senate will do its work on its budget proposal.
Four years ago, for the first time in recent memory, the House failed to approve its own version of the budget and instead depended on the work done by the Senate to arrive at a compromise.
Two years ago with Democrats in the majority, Sununu vetoed the budget. An agreement was reached in September that spent more money than the one approved by the legislature in June.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.