With Democratic numbers, House peels back EFA program

Feb. 23—CONCORD — A bill (HB 430) to deny education freedom accounts (EFA) in the future from more than four of five families that have been seeking them politically came back from the dead Thursday.

This vote and two other issues underscored how attendance in the closely-divided House of Representatives can make all the difference between winning or losing on a controversial matter.

The House voted, 176-169, to limit taxpayer-paid EFA scholarships in the future only to families whose children attended public schools in the previous school year.

The House eight days earlier had deadlocked, 175-175, on this identical issue after Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, cast a rare, deciding vote to block its passage.

But supporters seized on the fact that by mid-afternoon Thursday, there were more Democrats than Republicans in Representatives Hall.

This came as the House was near the conclusion of two days and more than 12 hours of debate on bills before members would get the public school vacation week off from having to meet in session.

House Democrats executed this reversal after one of their own, Rep. Philip Jones, D-Keene, admitted having "misread the intent" of the bill and twice voting incorrectly on Feb. 14.

Jones, a first-term member, jokingly blamed his mistake on a "third-grade teacher" who taught him at a private religious school.

Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, said that only 680 of the 3,065 (23%) of families who got EFAs came from public schools with the rest having attended private or home school programs previously.

"All of these public taxpayer dollars are going to pay private tuition bills," Luneau said.

If adopted, this bill would permit those families who get EFAs now to keep them, but restrict eligibility in the future.

The EFA program lets families earning less than 300% of the federal poverty level ($90,000 for a family of four) to receive the state's per pupil state adequacy grant and use it on alternatives to their assigned public school.

The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers brought suit in superior court last December, claiming the program unconstitutionally provides scholarships from money in the Education Trust Fund meant only to support public schools.

Packard referred the bill to the House Finance Committee and that means it must face another vote when the panel makes a recommendation on it next month.

GOP state Chairman Chris Ager said the Republican-led Senate would reject this bill if it ever gets that far.

"The N.H. Senate will defend education freedom and protect EFAs for low and middle income families, absolutely shameful act by the Dems," Ager said.

Democrats score wins

House Democrats successfully made the same move to pass legislation for renewable energy tax credits (HB 234).

Supporters said this would permit spending for alternative energy projects that utilities had allowances for but did not fully use.

The House passed the bill 177-167 and it too went to the House finance panel.

Earlier Thursday, an identical move by House Democrats had failed when Packard created a 175-175 tie.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, criticized the reversals.

"House Democrats got their first taste of a majority today and they showed their true colors. The first two votes they took today were to strip education from less fortunate children and raise electric rates by over $30 million. House Democrats are hurting the families of New Hampshire," Osborne said.

"Their agenda is on full display and Granite Staters should take note."

Critics of EFAs noted on social media that Osborne's spouse runs a homeschooling company that received $28,750 last year.

The House then passed and sent over to the state Senate a third bill (HB 111) opposed by House GOP leaders to study offering electric vehicle charging stations for residential renters.

At one point, the partisan infighting grew bitter after some House Democrats loudly protested that Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, had called for a half hour recess after some GOP setbacks.

"You are all embarrassing yourselves and all of your colleagues.," Smith declared.

Later, House Deputy Majority Leader Fred Doucette, R-Salem, also condemned the outburst.

"The behavior we have seen from those House Democrats today leaves me saddened and disgusted with how they view the privilege of serving in this hallowed hall. Their constituents deserve better," Doucette said in a statement.

At the close of the session, however, House Democratic Deputy Floor Leader Josh Adjutant of Enfield praised his counterpart, House Majority Floor Leader Joe Sweeney, R-Salem, for the respect he had shown during the difficult day.

"I consider him now a good friend and look forward to meeting him on the field of battle for a long and tiring year," Adjutant added.