Decked out in campaign signs and red-white-and-blue bunting, Salem High School was a fitting site one evening last week for a question-and-answer session with five of the six major party candidates vying to be New Hampshire’s next governor. That’s because schools—more specifically, how to pay for them—are at the center of next week’s primary elections here in the Granite State.
The school funding issue has been on New Hampshire’s political radar screen since 1991, when five poor towns, known as the Claremont coalition, filed a lawsuit charging that the state’s education finance system was unfair and unconstitutional. The state supreme court eventually agreed, striking down both the old funding system and a hard-won financing plan devised by lawmakers to replace it.
In a last-ditch effort to keep money flowing to schools last year, the legislature resurrected a statewide property tax. (Nov. 10, 1999.) But the tax, viewed on all sides as a temporary solution, has run into opposition from property-rich towns where tax bills shot up last year as a result of the change. Those communities claim that even with abatements added to soften the blow for low-income property owners, some residents are forced to choose between buying food or paying their tax bills.
What’s more, analysts predict that without another tax hike, property-tax revenues will fall short of the $829 million needed to fund schools in the 2001-02 school year. “Everybody who’s running for office knows they’re going to be dealing with this funding issue again, and the next governor will play an important role in that process,” said R. Dean Michener, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.
Five of the six candidates, in fact, have already played a role. Besides Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, they include:
- Democratic state Sen. Mark Fernald, who is fighting an uphill battle against Gov. Shaheen for his party’s nomination. He was one of three architects of an alternative school finance plan that passed both legislative chambers last year only to run into opposition from the governor. The plan’s downfall was its inclusion of a state income tax, a funding mechanism long opposed in a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die.”
- State Sen. James W. Squires, one of four Republicans in the race. He sponsored an unsuccessful amendment in the Senate last year that called for dedicating a state income tax to education.
- Music retailer Fred Bramante, who, as a former state school board member, was a defendant in the Claremont lawsuit. He also claims to be the intellectual father of the current property-tax plan, which won him and his co-authors a statewide “good government” competition in the mid-1990s; and,
- Jeff Howard, who, as the state’s attorney general from 1991 to 1997, advised the state on the Claremont case in its early stages.
The sixth candidate, Gordon J. Humphrey, who retired from the U.S. Senate in 1990 after serving four terms, is the front- runner for the Republican nomination.
All the challengers accuse Gov. Shaheen of ducking the school funding issue in the primary campaign, which ends when voters go to the polls Sept. 12.
In April, the governor appointed a panel to consider the economic impact of various school funding options. For the most part, she has refused to discuss the matter further until that group finishes its work on Dec. 1—weeks after November’s general election. Citing the press of her official duties, she has also turned down all but one invitation to debate her Democratic challenger.
“I’m going to keep an open mind, look at the facts, and do what’s best for our economy and our kids,” she said in her announcement speech in May.
Perhaps in an attempt to keep her options open, Ms. Shaheen this summer broke with decades of tradition and refused to take the no-income-tax pledge made by every gubernatorial candidate in the state since the 1950s. She has also suggested installing video lotteries at the state’s four racetracks as a possible new revenue source.
A perceived lack of leadership on the school funding issue is what led Dr. Squires, a medical doctor and first-term state senator, into the race in the first place.
“The present governor wasn’t going to talk about this issue,” he said. “I said I’m going to talk about this issue because it’s the most important policy issue of the day and we need it answered.”
Ms. Shaheen was absent from last week’s forum at Salem High School, an event sponsored by the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce and broadcast on local-access cable channels in another handful of communities.
While the panel of questioners quizzed the candidates on everything from the state police to the University of New Hampshire system, the politicians used their allotted question-and-answer time to challenge their opponents on their respective school funding proposals.
The solutions they offer are a varied lot. Mr. Fernald, for example, is pushing almost the same plan he helped shepherd through the legislature last year. It calls for funding schools with a 3.5 percent income tax and a statewide property tax from which primary residences are exempt. Dr. Squires, breaking with the rest of the Republican challengers, advocates a flat, 4 percent income tax.
Mr. Humphrey says the state can pay for schools simply by reining in spending in other areas of state government.
“I fled here from Massachusetts for the sake of my children,” he said at the forum. “I want to make sure this state doesn’t become ‘Taxachusetts North.’”
Mr. Howard would do the same but direct more state aid to the districts that need it most. Mr. Bramante, a five-time candidate for governor, favors tweaking the existing property tax to provide some relief to low-income property owners.
Pulse From the Polls
The challengers’ plans do not seem to be paying off in the polls.
In the latest voter survey, taken Aug. 17-21 by the American Research Group, a Manchester, N.H.-based polling firm, Mr. Humphrey led among Republicans with support from 42 percent of respondents, a slight drop since the start of the campaign. He was followed by Mr. Howard, with 11 percent; state Sen. Squires, with 10 percent; and Mr. Bramante, with 9 percent. Another 28 percent, however, said they were still undecided.
Among Democratic voters, state Sen. Fernald, who is endorsed by the state teachers’ union, trailed badly in the poll. Sixteen percent of respondents favored him, compared with 74 percent for Gov. Shaheen. Ten percent were undecided.
In a face-off between Mr. Humphrey and Gov. Shaheen, the polling firm said, 41 percent of the 1,100 voters surveyed said they would vote for the governor. Mr. Humphrey was the favored by 32 percent of those surveyed.
It probably hasn’t hurt Ms. Shaheen’s chances for re-election that, under the stopgap taxing plan, property taxes fell last year in most of the state’s 241 municipalities. That included Salem, a community 30 miles north of Boston with a racetrack and a strong industrial and retail base.
That’s why several of the customers having breakfast here one morning last week at Sammy J’s Breakfast Cafe said they planned to stick with the governor come Election Day.
“When you get something in there that’s decent you don’t like to mess with it,” said Phillip Herbert, a retired manufacturing worker. “At least that’s the way I look at it.”