What’s Noteworthy Here is the Governor’s Chutzpah

Charlie Arlinghaus

January 15, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The governor would like to spend state revenues directly for scholarships to be used at any approved school, public or private in the state. At the same time, in the same term, she is arguing that legislation that does the same thing is an unconstitutional breach that must be stopped. Rarely has any leader been so directly and perfectly contradictory.

In her budget address just eleven months ago, Gov. Hassan proposed spending $4 million from the state treasury directly to pay for “need-based scholarships that can be used at both public and private colleges.” This is not an unreasonable program. To allow lower-income students access to greater educational opportunity, the governor wants to target limited dollars to them. Rather than dictate a list of specific providers, the governor believes students and their parents should choose from any licensed school, public or private, religious or secular, in-state or out-of-state to develop the best educational option for that specific student.

It makes sense. There are myriad educational options and what’s right for one student may not be as good a fit for another. I don’t think she ever seriously considered saying that the scholarship can only be used at UNH because the government controls UNH. That would limit opportunity and this program is about opportunity – opportunity that can be found, in the governor’s words, “at both public and private colleges.”

Then comes the opportunity to apply a similar logic to the state’s limited school choice tax credit program. The school choice tax credit doesn’t actually spend money from the state treasury like the governor’s favorite scholarship program does. It does allow a tax credit for businesses who donate to scholarship granting organizations.

The scholarships are need based and can, just like in the governor’s model, be used at both public and private schools. The logic is similar to the governor’s. Opportunity is best extended by increasing the number of choices not limiting them.

The governor, however, can apparently see things differently out of each eye. While her own program is a grand and wonderful accomplishment, the other scholarship program threatens “the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom.”  The quote is from her brief (authored by her legal counsel) asking the state court to toss out the program – not the one she proposed, the other one.

Apparently writing a check directly from the state government to St. Anselm or to Southern Methodist is an innovative and noble cause that increases opportunity among students of lower income.

In contrast, the governor would have us believe, allowing a tax credit that a business can chose to take to send a contribution to a scholarship foundation to send a scholarship to a parent to choose to go to Trinity High School is a subversive act that threatens the foundations of democracy or at least its “hallowed underpinnings.”

I want to take her seriously but rarely has a politician taken opposite actions on items of such stark similarity. The one program is a significantly greater entanglement yet it is touted as the very model of promoting opportunity. Perhaps she thinks so because it’s her idea. My ideas are grand and noble. Yours, however similar, are threats to “hallowed underpinnings.”

The intellectual goofiness (a technical term) of the argument is as amusing as it I sad. I suppose the argument asks us to believe that colleges with religious affiliations are fine and dandy but high schools threaten democracy.

In addition, we are asked to believe that a very indirect tax credit is the same as a direct expenditure but a complete tax exemption is not. Direct spending is all right only because it’s for college not high school.

Despite decades of court rulings that money that never went to the state is not actually state money (for example, taking a charitable deduction for a donation to your church is not the same as the government actually writing a check to your church), the administration would have us believe that for this one purpose it is.

This logical oddity has difficulty explaining why granting a complete and total exemption from taxes to the church in which religious services are actually held is noble and free but an indirect, partial credit threatens all those “hallowed underpinnings.”

Jason Bedrick, my former colleague at the Josiah Bartlett Center now spreading freedom from the Cato Institute, has the last word on this amusing protest.  Jason concludes, “What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah.”