By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
Most people believed this year Christmas would be different, more like the celebrations and gatherings of the past.
The hope was families could assemble from distant lands to celebrate, socialize and shelter in the glow of loved ones.
People will still travel, celebrate and rejoice, but there will also be a shadow lurking in the fireplace, sneaking in through the open door with the setting sun and waiting, just waiting.
The best gift for everyone in the world this year would be the end of the pandemic and a return to something resembling normalcy. But when 5.4 million people have lost their lives — 800,000 in the United States — the world will not return to normal.
Despite the uncertainty today with another new strain sweeping the globe, there is much to celebrate this year depending on your outlook.
Starting with the new “Education Freedom Account” program giving parents the money their public school would receive in state aid for their child.
The program is limited initially to families at 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less or slightly less than $80,000 for a family of four.
While the program has many more families participating than lawmakers were led to believe this fiscal year, the program will draw $8.1 million from the Education Trust Fund that pays for adequate education grants to public schools, traditional and charter.
According to the Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, the average grant per student — 1,635 students are participating — is $4,952, or just less than $5,000 per student.
That obviously is not going to help a great deal if your student is attending St. Paul’s or Phillips Exeter, but will if you are planning to attend a parochial school or alternative or experimental academy.
Of the 71 in-person schools or academies listed as the program’s certified providers, at least 65 percent are religious schools with more than 90 percent Catholic.
Just three or four years ago, state money could not be spent to send a child to a religious affiliated school, but that changed with two US Supreme Court decisions which essentially address Blaine amendment prohibitions, not the provision in the state constitution that forbids state money being used to promote religion.
But the Legislature this year passed a number of bills allowing state education tax money to flow to religious schools, which has to be a godsend to the state’s Catholic schools. The schools have reduced internal scholarships in recent years as this state and others have grown more secular.
The program is also a gift to about 704 students who were not registered in public schools this year when the program began and were either in private or religious schools or homeschooled.
That means —using the average $5,000 grant — there is a new $3.5 million draw on the Education Trust Fund that was not there at the beginning of the school year.
The trust fund in recent years has had a surplus, but during most of its existence, the state general fund has had to contribute to meet education funding obligations.
This is a program that is bound to keep on giving to the parents and students who have the potential to excel in a different educational environment.
Like the Shaheen administration understood more than 20 years ago, when those education funding checks went to school districts to address the Supreme Court’s Claremont education decision, there would be no turning back.
The Sununu administration, Edelblut and other school choice supporters know that with the 1,635 students this year in the program, there also will be no turning back, but there does need to be some refining.
New Hampshire is a purple state, meaning it is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and that is evident with the split between registered party voters after the last election.
Democrats outnumber Republicans slightly, 347,828 to 333,165, Then you might ask how did Republicans flip the State House when President Joe Biden handily defeated former President Donald Trump here in New Hampshire?
Along with the registered Democrats and Republicans, 438,239 voters are unaffiliated, and they outnumber voters from either party.
New Hampshire has for a few elections had an all Democratic congressional delegation and the NH GOP chair, Stephen Stepanek, guaranteed earlier this year there would be a GOP Granite State Congressman after the 2022 elections and his Republican charges on the House Special Redistricting Committee delivered for him if the plan makes its way through to become law.
The gerrymandered congressional districts would move about 350,000 state residents from one district to the other to accomplish the goal of creating a district that is a Republican lock, and one that is a Democratic lock.
The gift to the GOP will probably have to pass judicial muster before it is final however.
Similarly the Senate Special Redistricting Committee has floated a proposed redrawing of the five Executive Council districts that would lock in three for Republicans and two for Democrats.
Again it is the classic gerrymandering technique of packing and cracking to put Democratic strongholds into the two districts while the other three would favorably lean Republican.
State Senate districts are likely to follow what is currently in place, a plan developed 10 year ago to assure Democrats nine to 10 of the 24 seats, but making it nearly impossible to reach the 13 needed for a majority.
For the first two elections under that plan, Democratic candidates received more votes than their Republican counterparts, but the GOP held 13-11 and 14-10 majorities.
The final outcomes are a few months from fruition, but at the moment it looks like the Republican lawmakers have given their party some pretty big gifts for the next 10 years.
The pro-life constituency has tried for years to restrict abortion rights in New Hampshire with the only real victory parental notification.
But this year they achieved what has alluded them, banning abortions after the 23rd week of a woman’s pregnancy and also a mandatory invasive ultrasound for any abortion procedure.
The gift involved many including the Senate leadership who put the provisions in the budget so Gov. Chris Sununu, who says he is pro-choice, would not have to veto a bill with those provisions. Instead he was able to say the budget package is too important to veto for one provision.
The change in state reproductive rights may create a gift for the pro-choice side eventually, but not in the near future.
Second amendment rights advocates have been receiving gifts from the New Hampshire legislature for some time with stand-your-ground laws and eliminating concealed weapons permits.
They thought they had another gift this term when the legislature passed a bill dismantling the state gun line run by the State Police. The gun line is used by gun dealers to determine if a person may legally buy a pistol.
The lawmakers decided federal law enforcement would be more efficient for the background check.
The gripe is State Police take too long to respond, but Sununu vetoed the bill and it is doubtful there are the votes needed for a two-thirds majority to override his action.
The gifts that really matter are the ones we give each other such as respect, kindness, compassion, empathy, friendship and love.
And we can’t give enough of those gifts this Christmas no matter your political persuasion.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.