At the start of each Senate session, our chaplain offers a brief comment and a prayer.
Last week, Rev. Canon Charles LaFond mentioned that he has a sign at the entryway to his house that states that conversation in that house should be "kind, true and improve on the silence." He suggested that in voting on the many bills on our calendar we should consider votes that would be "kind, true and help the poor and the people living on the margins of life."
Canon LaFond’s words are always calming and welcome. That was especially true as we headed into Wednesday’s session that started at 10 a.m. and did not end until close to 5 p.m. Senators anticipate a similar workload this week as the legislature faces our "crossover" mark.
Often New Hampshire government is a leader in new policies but from time to time we are laggards. That is true of laws against prescription drug abuse. The Senate passed a bill last week to create a system to track controlled drugs, reduce the incidents of doctor shopping and prevent deadly drug overdoses.
When Senator Jeb Bradley (Wolfeboro) brought the bill (SB 286) to the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee in February he noted that more people die in New Hampshire from legal drugs than in highway accidents. In terms of residents in the 18-25 age category our state ranks second in the nation in abuse. Similar programs to those in SB 286 are in use in 48 other states and are working with marked reductions in prescription drug abuse.
This is one of those bills long overdue. There was no opposition and strong support from the Board of Medicine, emergency room physicians, Board of Pharmacy, the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services. The NH Association of Chiefs of Police was a strong supporter of the bill, too, as an important public safety measure.
Given that the program will be funded through gifts, grants and user fees, no state money will be needed. Everyone was on board and the bill sailed through the Senate on a voice vote.
While the Senate killed a bill (SB 405) that would have provided tax credits for businesses setting up workforce development programs with the community college system, it passed a bill (SB 372) to give businesses the opportunity to receive similar tax credits for contributions made to scholarship programs to subsidize students going to private schools or being home schooled.
The community college system tax credit bill had come before Senate Ways and Means Committee which I chair. Acknowledging that the legislature reduced the state’s appropriation to the community colleges in this budget cycle and the fact that we appreciate the vital work they do for thousands of students, the committee faced the reality that the tax credits would reduce revenue for the state. The four committee members present voted 4-0 to kill the bill. The roll call vote on the floor was 17-7 to support the committee’s recommendation.
The tax credit bill to provide scholarship money for students moving from public schools to private schools or already in private schools went through the Senate Education Committee. The vote in committee was 3-1 in support of an "ought to pass" recommendation.
There are two key points here. First, one Senator voted ought to pass to move the bill out of committee and avoid a tie vote. That Senator voted against the bill on the floor.
Secondly, the education committee is not a financial committee like the Ways and Means and Finance Committees. Education Committee members were voting on the policy and not the finances of implementing the scholarship program. On the Senate floor, after a spirited debate, the bill passed on a 15-9 vote.
The next day the bill was before the Finance Committee for a financial evaluation. The bill originally would cost the state, according to the sponsor, several million dollars in reduced revenue from business taxes. That loss was to be made up in lower state payments to communities as students left their public schools and moved to private schools. The math works for some Senators but not for others.
Total tax credits for a variety of programs cost the state around $23 million per year. This one scholarship program would increase that amount, as originally presented, to over $30 million in one fell swoop but would benefit only a limited number of families with children going to private schools.
In the Finance Committee, some Senators who supported the policy of a new scholarship program on the Senate floor the day before, voted for a motion of "interim study." As Senate Finance Chair, Senator Chuck Morse (Salem) stated, "we can’t afford it." If the full Senate supports the Finance Committee’s recommendation of interim study at our next session, the bill will die for 2012.
Canon LaFond’s words of advice and caution seem so very appropriate when we discuss bills we all agree on but the pastor’s words seem a way off when we deal with divisive and contentious legislation like the business tax credit/scholarship bill.
A bill to create a special number plate to benefit the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation is dead. The bill had raised issues of constitutionality and whether it was appropriate for the state to become a fund-raising vehicle for one charity.
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