‘It probably can’t pass if it stands alone’: Public urges lawmakers to keep voucher bill out of budget

Lawmakers, city officials, school board members, taxpayers, and others are urging the Senate to keep the school voucher bill out of the state’s budget bill, where it wouldn’t get the individual attention that they say it deserves — or the support it would need to pass.

“The school voucher bill, SB 130, is likely to be added soon to the NH state budget by the Senate Finance Committee, in spite of the fact that not one person testified in favor of this move at that committee’s budget hearing, and many testified against it. Why? Because the bill probably cannot pass if it stands alone,” Harrisville resident David Blair wrote in a letter to the editor. 

The bill, which creates a school voucher program that allows taxpayer funds to pay for private school tuition and homeschooling costs through “education freedom accounts,” has been met with overwhelming opposition since it was first introduced in January. Nearly 3,300 people opposed it when it was in the Senate Education Committee, but the Senate passed the bill anyway and is expected to add it into the state budget bill, House Bill 2, where it would be included with the laws that dictate the state’s operating budget for 2022-2023. 

If added to the budget bill, the voucher proposal would evade the kind of scrutiny it underwent in 2018 when a similar proposal was tabled over accountability and financial concerns, and unresolved issues. It wouldn’t receive another public hearing — nor would it receive the close study and attention to the technical details that bills receive during executive sessions. 

“This committee should not wrap into [the state budget] such a complex bill for all its unintended consequences, unless and until they can do the kind of multi-month deep dive into the specifics of the bill that House Finance did in 2018 and fix it,” David Doherty, a former state representative from Pembroke, told the Senate Finance Committee during a public hearing last week. 

“Throwing it in the budget at this stage of the process rather than allowing for a detailed study of it by both House Finance and Senate Finance as a stand-alone bill during a non-budget year would be irresponsible and a disservice to the people of New Hampshire.”

Doherty served on the House Education Committee in 2018 when the legislature was considering a similar voucher bill, and said that even through 13 work sessions, the Republican-led committee couldn’t work through the issues and nuances of the bill — and that those unresolved issues remain in this year’s voucher bill. 

There are also concerns that the state’s budget office has not yet published an analysis of how much the latest version of the bill would cost, prompting local leaders in 15 communities to raise alarms to Senate lawmakers:

“Of grave concern to all of us is that with a voucher program in SB 130, one far more expansive than SB 193 before the Senate, there has been no such analysis completed to date,” the leaders wrote in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee. “We would respectfully request that for the sake of transparency and informed public input, that the Senate request a similar financial analysis be done that examines different scenarios of the impact” of the bill. 

Reaching Higher NH’s analysis found that, if only half of the state’s private and homeschool students enrolled in the voucher program, it would cost the state nearly $70 million in new state spending in the first three years. And, the program would cost property taxpayers at least $32 million in its first five years, using conservative estimates. 

The Senate Finance Committee is working through the state budget bill, and must deliver a final proposal to the full Senate before its June 3 deadline. The committee has a work session on Friday, May 14, at 1 p.m., where members are expected to vote on education-related amendments. 
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