CONCORD, N.H. -- Two years after the state Supreme Court ordered New Hampshire to find a fairer way to pay for schools, state legislators act like soldiers returning from the front lines, complaining of battle fatigue from spending too many months in the education funding trenches.
Unable to agree on a permanent solution, they declared a truce in November until the next Legislature takes office in 2001 and dumped what could be a $400 million budget mess into their successors' laps. That's because the Legislature paid for the first two years' of school costs with $181 million in revenues from sources not likely to be repeated. It left a $30 million shortfall for the current two-year budget to absorb.
It also froze state aid to schools at $825 million a year, which doesn't allow for growth in the cost of an adequate education the state must provide nor the growth in student population. Those factors could boost the state's bill more than $100 million a year in 2001 and 2002.
Two years ago, the court ruled the state has a duty to adequately fund public schools. It also ruled the old system of local property taxes unconstitutional because of widely varying rates. The interim fix relies mostly on a statewide property tax that is automatically repealed in 2003.
Most legislators readily acknowledge that, barring further court order this year, they won't tinker with their interim solution.
And it's unlikely the courts will disturb their truce. The five school districts whose lawsuit led to the landmark decision in December 1997 aren't likely to ask the Supreme Court to order changes to a temporary solution. Instead, they'll wait to see what a special commission appointed to review the funding issue recommends late this year for the 2001 Legislature to consider.
If they choose to take the state on again, they will be better funded by the state. The Supreme Court last month ordered the state to pay some of the attorneys' fees for the towns. The court said the state's immunity to paying such costs doesn't apply when a law is overturned as unconstitutional that benefits the public interest.
Similarly, a lawsuit filed last month by a group of communities that pay higher property taxes under the new financing law must work its way through a lower court before reaching the Supreme Court. That could take two or more years.
Certainly, this Legislature will fight skirmishes on several other fronts:
For many, that means a referendum on an income tax. Its supporters insist it is the only tax that can fairly raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed. Opponents say it will shift too much control over education tax policy to the state.
Already, Republican leaders are defining the 2000 elections as a choice between an income tax and return to local control. Among Shaheen's potential opponents is former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a conservative Republican.
If it had not been for Shaheen's vow to veto the income tax, it would have become law last year. The popular Democrat has not said if she'll run for re-election, but most expect her to seek a third term. Lately, she has hedged whether she would continue to block an income tax if legislators sent her one after this year.