By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate Finance Committee decided Thursday the Education Trust Fund and what it supports should remain as it is in statute.
They passed that change to the House budget prior to unveiling a new education funding plan earmarked for Friday, that will increase the per pupil adequacy grants over the House’s plan, while reducing the targeted aid.
The Senate plan will also include a hold harmless provision that decreases 20 percent a year like the House plan and would increase education funding by 2 percent a year.
The new education funding formula would provide greater funding for Manchester and Nashua, based more on student enrollment than the one passed by the House which seeks to target greater funding for property poor communities with higher poverty levels.
The Senate plan would increase spending over the House plan by $3 million in fiscal 2024, but is $4 million lower in fiscal 2025.
The Senate plan would be a $72 million increase over the current distribution formula in 2024 and an $85 million increase over 2025.
The House’s proposed budget reduced the amount of money flowing into the fund and restricted its uses to education adequacy grants for public schools, charter school grants and to cover costs for the Education Freedom Account program.
The amendment the finance committee approved Thursday returns the special education costs, building aid, and tuition and transportation costs for students attending regional technical centers to funding from the Education Trust Fund. The House would have those areas compete for state general funds in the two-year operating budget.
Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said Thursday his amendment would provide clarity the Department of Revenue Administration requested on the funding sources, and would essentially maintain the amount of money flowing to the Education Trust Fund under current law.
The House budget would reduce the money going into the education trust by $222 million in fiscal 2024 and $225 million in 2025 but increase the general fund by that amount.
The Education Trust Fund totaled $1.22 billion in fiscal 2022, and $1.06 billion in the current fiscal year, 2023.
“I prefer to keep Education Trust Fund dollars where they are,” Bradley said, “and this does that while fixing the DRA’s concern.”
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, wondered if the committee would see another amendment to realign what the trust fund covers for Friday.
Bradley said the allocation to the fund is roughly the same as it is now within a percentage point or two, noting he does not believe another amendment is needed to do what is currently in place.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he was around when the Education Trust Fund was established to address the Claremont education lawsuit. Money was allocated from existing taxes as well as Sweepstakes money to go into the Education Trust Fund, he said, and if it did not have enough money to cover education costs, money would come from the general fund.
He could support the amendment, he said, “as long as we all understand if there is a shortage, we go back to the general fund.”
Rosenwald asked if the amendment is approved does it look like there is sufficient money in the trust fund in the future and was told the next two years look like there would be no problem.
Pulp and Paper
The finance committee also approved $1.5 million for grant money to help stabilize the two paper and pulp mills in the state: The Cascade Mill in Gorham and the Monadnock Paper Mill in Bennington.
Bradley said while the $1.5 million is not as much as was originally proposed — $3 million — it should help stabilize the Cascade mill and the jobs it represents.
But Rosenwald suggested such a grant of taxpayers money to private companies would be a precedent.
She noted the state has provided loans, and loan guarantees and exemptions from business taxes, but she was not comfortable giving taxpayers money to a private company, but would support loans.
Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, said the state did give money to farmers in the middle of a bad drought several years ago and that helped save a number of family farms that may otherwise have gone out of business.
But D’Allesandro said he did not think the amount of money Bradley proposed would be enough to stabilize the Cascade mill, noting it had received federal pandemic money through the state and that was not enough to stabilize the situation.
“If we are going to give them more, we ought to know explicitly how the money is going to be used,” D’Allesandro said. “It may not be enough money to save them, and then we may be just throwing money at it.”
He said they are talking about risk capital, and the woman who resurrected the mill went belly up and pulled out.
Bradley said the mill has a specific use for the money for more efficient boilers. “We should provide the help to fix that and hopefully they will be sustainable,” he said. “I hope (the money) can preserve two businesses in this state.”
Sen. Dan Innis, R-Bradford, said the state has been subsidizing private businesses in the state for some time, noting everyone loves to ride the buses to Boston.
He noted the state built the terminals and owns some of the buses that are leased back to the bus companies.
“We have to look at the greater good,” he said, but D’Allesandro said the state had to subsidize the bus companies if it wanted to reconstruct I-93 between Salem and Manchester. Everyone in the state is affected by that road, he said.
But committee chair Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, said everyone in New Hampshire will be paying the welfare and other social service costs of laid off workers if the mills close.
The grant was approved 4-2 down party lines.
The finance committee also approved a $1 million cyanobacteria mitigation grant program to begin cleaning the bodies of water affected by the outbreaks.
And the committee approved an amendment to approve a land swap to relocate the Rochester District Court from its current location to another area of the city.
The committee meets at 11 a.m. Friday to work on education issues including the new education funding formula to be presented by Bradley.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.