Judge rules public school funding method unconstitutional

KEENE, N.H. (AP) — A judge has ruled that New Hampshire’s current method for funding public schools is unconstitutional, two decades after a series of court decisions that said the state has a duty to provide and pay for an adequate education.
The decision Wednesday by Superior Court Judge David Ruoff in Cheshire County follows a lawsuit by the ConVal, Mascenic, Winchester, and Monadnock school districts against the state, the Department of Education, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and Gov. Chris Sununu. It said that goal hasn’t been accomplished.
State law sets the current base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student, based on a formula determined by a legislative committee in 2008. Ruoff wrote that the parties agree “that not a single school in the State of New Hampshire could or does function” at that amount per student.
He said the amount is inaccurate, based on calculations by lawmakers that don’t take into account the real costs of transportation, teachers, or facilities. But he stopped short at picking a number. “Such a decision should not rest in the hands of judges,” he wrote.
A spokesman for Sununu echoed that sentiment. “The State is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a court room,” Ben Vihstadt said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Education Department said no comment was planned at this time on the lawsuit.
Back in the 1990s, the state Supreme Court issued a series of decisions on education funding. One key ruling in 1997 found the state’s reliance on local property taxes for most school funding unconstitutional. The rulings came after Claremont and four towns sued the state in 1991.
In response to the rulings, the Legislature provides a set amount of financial aid per pupil, plus extra for students who meet other criteria, such as being economically disadvantaged or having special education needs.
In his budget proposal, Sununu included $64 million for school-building projects in property-poor communities. The House rejected that, instead voting to restore so-called stabilization grants to schools and adjust the formula used to send education money to towns and cities to benefit those with lower property values and higher percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That would amount to about $150 million in the second year of the budget and would be paid for by extending the 5% interest and dividends tax to cover capital gains.
The Senate, meanwhile, is voting Thursday on its version of the budget, which also would restore stabilization grants but spend about $60 million less than the House on education. The Senate wants to send more unrestricted money back to towns and cities in the form of revenue sharing, $40 million compared to the House’s $12.5 million.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, called restoration of the grants “something we’re going to do, something we should do, and we’ll see what happens beyond that.”
As legislators approach the final stages of the budget process, House Democrats “are committed to bring real relief to property tax payers while ensuring every Granite State student has access to quality education,” said Majority Leader Douglas Ley, D-Jaffrey.
Both the House and Senate want to create a commission to study new approaches to education funding. It also would study whether the funding formula complies with court decisions.

Teen found not guilty by reason of insanity in mom’s death

OSSIPEE, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire authorities say a teenager has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the fatal stabbing of his mother.
Police said 42-year-old Melissa Hatch, of Madison, was found dead in her home in February. Her son, Keith Dobens, who turns 18 Friday, was charged with second-degree murder. He appeared in court Thursday
A judge in Carroll County Superior Court agreed the parties have shown that Dobens still suffers from a mental disease or defect and poses “a substantial risk of bodily injury to others.”
Dobens is being committed to a secure psychiatric unit for five years.

Maine could ditch caucuses, move to presidential primaries

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine could be the latest state to ditch its presidential caucus for a primary system, a move that would leave just a handful of states with the more grassroots caucus system heading into the 2020 presidential election.
The bill has sailed through the Democratic-led House and Senate, but the Senate on Thursday sent the bill to lawmakers on the Legislature’s appropriations committee as they hash out a deal on the budget. The sticking point now is funding: Maine lawmakers must weigh whether to provide roughly $120,000 this upcoming year to fund printing and delivering presidential primary ballots to municipalities.
As the 2020 presidential primary season nears, Maine is among an increasingly small handful of states that still have caucuses, including Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming. That’s down from 15 states in 2008, as states including Kansas, Idaho and Colorado have dropped traditional caucuses in recent years for state-run or party-run primaries.
More states have made the change ever since the national Democratic Party adopted a preference for state-run primaries last August, according to political scientist Josh Putnam, a lecturer in public and international affairs at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who tracks elections and campaigns for his blog, Frontloading HQ.
He said Maine is the seventh state to switch from a caucus in 2016 to a state-run primary.
Caucuses feature often lengthy group discussions at meetings where party members select candidates to support, while voters at statewide presidential primaries instead cast ballots for candidates.
A 2016 Maine law switched the state to presidential primary elections, but it was never funded and ended up being automatically repealed. Maine also had primaries in 1996 and 2000, but parties called for a return to caucuses long viewed as helping to engage and organize voters.
Now, primary supporters buoyed by Democratic gains in the Legislature are pointing to reports of headaches at Maine’s 2016 presidential caucus meetings. Republicans faced long drives to regional caucus locations, while Democrats faced long lines at overcrowded caucuses.
Maine typically boasts among the nation’s largest turnout.
But local voting groups argue long lines discourage voters, and that caucuses simply can’t engage as many voters as primaries. About 65,000 Mainers participated in the 2016 presidential caucuses, while over 200,000 voted in the 2018 statewide gubernatorial primary.
“Even when individual caucus locations seem crowded on caucus day, the number of Mainers who participate is far smaller than the number who vote in primaries,” Bob Howe, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Maine recently told lawmakers. “Primaries offer a much broader gauge of public support, and draw a more representative electorate, than party caucuses.”
But the long-cherished tradition of caucuses also has its own proponents in the largely rural New England state, who praise its small-town, community feel.
Caucuses in Maine and elsewhere have at times given an edge to candidates who brand themselves as outsiders: Presidential contender Bernie Sanders won caucuses in a dozen states, including Maine, Kansas and Nebraska in 2016, while Republican Ted Cruz came out on top in Maine’s presidential caucus that year.
“I think where it’s going to potentially hurt is with well organized, lesser known candidates,” said Putnam. “They’re the ones who can take advantage of a caucus rather than a primary format.”
Bonnie Heptig, who is treasurer of the York County Maine Republican Committee, said she enjoys hearing and seeing from candidates and local citizens, and reading literature passed out at caucus meetings.
“It’s just more intimate, accessible,” Heptig said.

Senate debates 2-year $13 billion state budget

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire Senate was deep into debate Thursday over a two-year $13 billion state budget that Democrats praised as responsible and responsive to pressing problems and Republicans criticized as an unsustainable affront to taxpayers.
Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, ticked off a list of concerns both sides have agreed must be addressed, such as the opioid crisis, child protective services and public safety.
“Bang! We’re on it!” he thundered after listing each issue.
“We continue to do the kinds of things we want for our communities, what we want for our families, what we want for our friends and neighbors,” said D’Allesandro, of Manchester. “This budget reflects your values.”
The proposal being debated Thursday spends about the same amount in state general funds — $5.5 billion — as the budget passed by the House in April but differs in several key areas. While both significantly increase education funding, in part by restoring so-called “stabilization grants,” the House budget would spend about $60 million more, paid for by extending the tax on capital gains.
The Senate version would eliminate that tax and send more unrestricted money back to towns and cities in the form of revenue sharing, $40 million compared to the House’s $12.5 million.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, emphasized the proposal’s investments in women’s health care, services to help struggling parents and programs that allow the elderly and people with disabilities live independently.
But a provision Rosenwald championed about Medicaid expansion drew vehement objection from Republicans. The budget would allow state funds to be used, if necessary, to partially pay for the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Democrats argue that the provision is necessary to protect the health care of roughly 50,000 people, while Republicans argued it violates the original bipartisan agreement to extend the coverage to more low-income adults.
“We built a document, we did it in good faith, and we said we weren’t going to use general funds,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem. He angrily pushed back against the notion that Republicans were putting the program in jeopardy, noting that thy have agreed to increase reimbursement rates paid to providers.
“To suggest that this senator doesn’t give a damn is absolutely wrong. What I give a damn about is building an honest budget that doesn’t change the deal we had and explains to the public exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said claims that 51,000 people will lose coverage without the provision amounted to fear mongering and urged his colleagues to work together to make changes, if necessary, in the future.
Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, protested that Republicans pushed through new work requirements for Medicaid recipients late in the last budget cycle.
“We certainly argued against it, but we didn’t come to the Senate floor and accuse people of bad faith,” he said. “You can suggest anyone here is engaging in bad faith. Everyone here cares.”
Republicans also opposed the inclusion of a paid family medical program, which would be paid for via payroll deductions and which they say amounts to an income tax. They also object to Democrats’ plan to do away with business tax cuts that were scheduled to take place.
“I’m concerned today that promises being made in this budget are not sustainable,” Morse said.

Authorities identify 3 bodies linked to suspected killer

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — For nearly two decades, four suspected victims of serial killer Terry Peder Rasmussen remained unidentified — only decomposed bodies found in two barrels. But on Thursday, authorities were able to name three of them.
The state attorney general’s office confirmed one of the victims was 24-year-old Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch. Her two daughters, 6-year-old Marie Elizabeth Vaughn and 1-year-old Sarah Lynn McWaters, also were identified.
The body of another girl found in a barrel hasn’t been identified yet and isn’t believed to be related to them. Authorities believe Rasmussen is responsible for all four deaths and that the unidentified body is his daughter’s. Known as the Allenstown victims, the bodies of a woman and three children were found in two barrels near a state park in Allenstown, New Hampshire, in 1985 and 2000.
Rasmussen, who is suspected of killing at least six women and two children, died in a California prison in 2010. Attempts to reach relatives of Rasmussen have been unsuccessful.
“This restores a level of dignity and respect to those that lost their voice over 33 years ago and certainly gives us an appreciation of who they were and how they lived,” said New Hampshire State Police Col. Christopher Wagner, who met with relatives of the victims before the press conference that included family photos of the three .
Several relatives appeared at the press conference but didn’t speak publicly.
“The day comes with a heavy hearts,” they said in a released statement. “Marlyse, Marie and Sarah were so loved by our families and they are greatly missed. We take solace in finally having the answers we have longed for.”
Honeychurch was last seen in 1978 with Rasmussen, who was her boyfriend at the time.
The announcement is the latest twist in the case of Rasmussen, a Navy veteran who went by five different names and moved around most of his life, working on oil rigs, as a mechanic and on other jobs. He went by Bob Evans in New Hampshire and Lawrence Vanner in California, but authorities said that his real name was Terry Peder Rasmussen.
In 1981, Rasmussen was living with girlfriend Denise Beaudin and her 6-month-old daughter, Dawn, in Manchester, New Hampshire. All three disappeared that year, but Beaudin’s family never reported her missing, believing the couple left town because of money troubles.
Although her body has not been found, authorities believe Rasmussen killed Beaudin somewhere between New Hampshire and California.
In 1986, Rasmussen abandoned the baby, whom he called Lisa, and fled. He later served about 18 months in jail for child abandonment but took off after being paroled in 1990, authorities said.
In 2003, he was convicted of killing Eunsoon Jun, whom he had married two years earlier in an unofficial ceremony in Richmond, California. Her partially dismembered body was found in their basement, buried under cat litter.
“Together, we have been able to uncover the identity of the Allenstown killer, a murderer who tried erase his victims and hide in the process,” Associate Attorney General Jeffery A. Strelzin said. “He tried to hide who he was and what he did but ultimately he wasn’t successful. We know what he was. We know what he did and now we know who his victims were.”
When they were found inside the barrels in a forest, authorities said the remains of the four were too decomposed to be identified. All they could say was that the four were murdered.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children produced facial reconstruction of all four. Authorities then turned to DNA testing, determining that Rasmussen was the father of the unidentified victim, but not related to the other three.
Prospects for identifying the four improved greatly in 2017, when authorities identified the suspected killer as Rasmussen and the case drew renewed attention.
From there, they got help from a librarian from Connecticut who focuses on missing persons and had listened to a podcast about the case on New Hampshire Public Radio . She remembered an earlier posting about the missing Sarah McWaters on an ancestry site and reached out to the person who had posted it. That led to the confirmation that Honeychurch and her children were last seen with Rasmussen at her mother’s on Thanksgiving in 1978.
With information linking Rasmussen to the three, New Hampshire authorities turned to her friends and relatives to fill in details of the young woman’s life. They were also able to use mitochondrial DNA to confirm a familial relationship and genealogical research to provide a final confirmation of their identities.
Now that the three bodies have been positively identified, Strelzin said the focus will be on identifying the fourth body — possibly by locating the girl’s mother if she is still alive. They also are hoping to locate the body of Beaudin, another victim of Rasmussen’s killing spree.
“The easy answer is we don’t know where she is,” Strelzin said. “What we know is that Terry Rasmussen left four victims behind in New Hampshire … It is possible that Denise Beaudin is in fact somewhere in New Hampshire and we haven’t found her. Collectively, we think it’s more likely he probably left New Hampshire with her.”

House passes bill prohibiting discrimination in schools

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A bill aimed at better protecting New Hampshire students from discrimination has been sent to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
The House voted 211-141 in favor of the bill Wednesday. It had passed the state Senate in March.
It would prohibit discrimination against students in public schools based on age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, marital status, familial status, disability, religion or national origin. Supporters said there is a gap in existing law when it comes to students because while federal anti-discrimination laws apply in schools, the state’s new civil rights unit in the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction over such matters. Opponents argued unsuccessfully for an amendment that would have limited the bill’s scope.
The bill was recommended by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

House passes amended minimum wage bill

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire would re-establish and raise its minimum wage under a bill passed by the House.
The state currently relies on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the lowest in New England.
The bill approved Wednesday on a vote of 209-139 would set the minimum wage at $10 per hour in 2020 and $12 per hour in 2021.
Democrats argue that the increase will help low-wage workers who most need help to get closer to a living wage. Republicans counter that states that have enacted increases have seen jobs decline and the take-home pay for low-wage workers decrease due to reduced hours.
The House made changes to the bill that previously passed the Senate, so the proposal now goes back to the other chamber.

Mount Washington is setting for observatory-railway storm

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Mount Washington, home to some of the world’s worst weather, is the setting for a brewing storm between its summit weather observatory and a tourist railway over passenger fees and 19th century property rights.
The Mount Washington Observatory atop the Northeast’s highest peak sued the Mount Washington Cog Railway in a New Hampshire court Monday. It said since 2017, the railway hasn’t honored an agreement to pay the observatory $1 per ticketed passenger. The observatory estimated that more than 100,000 passengers traveled the cog that year in 2018.
The arrangement would help fund renovations at the observatory’s museum at the 6,288-foot summit and avoid a separate admission charge for museum visitors from the cog. The observatory has a similar arrangement with travelers on the auto road that goes up the mountain.
Railway owner Wayne Presby said Wednesday he hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet, but said he tried to end the agreement. He said the observatory wasn’t honoring the agreement because it allowed all visitors to enter the museum for free.
In its lawsuit, the observatory, citing an opinion of the attorney general’s office of an 1894 property rights agreement between the railway, the summit road, and a property owner’s heirs, said the railway has made false claims of land ownership. It asks that a judge declare the opinion accurate.
But Presby said the 1894 agreement gives exclusive easements and rights to the railway, including the right to house and feed overnight guests, which the observatory has done. Presby presented the idea of a mountainside hotel in 2016, but never submitted an application based on concerns from environmentalists and others.
The road to the summit, originally a carriage road, opened in 1861. The railway opened in 1869 and is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The observatory opened much later, in 1932.
“The observatory is operating on property which is covered by those easements,” Presby said. “Whether they existed at the time or not is immaterial; easements run with the land.”

Bill to independently investigate harassment claims passes

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire Legislature is one step closer to holding independent investigations into sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers.
Currently, complaints are reported to the House or Senate chiefs of staff. Under a bill the House passed on Wednesday, complaints would go to an independent human resources employee instead.
Supporters say sexual harassment is a real and continuing problem in workplaces, including the Statehouse. Opponents say administrative policy shouldn’t be enshrined in state law.
The House made some changes to a bill that previously passed the Senate, so differences between the two versions still must be worked out.

Frontier Airlines to suspend New Hampshire-Orlando route

Eds: APNewsNow. Corrects that suspension begins July 6, not June 6.
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — Frontier Airlines says it will suspend its service to Orlando, Florida, from Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, starting next month.
Seacoastonline.com reports airport director Paul Brean says he believes Frontier will restart the route later in the year but hasn’t received any confirmation. The route is the only one Frontier flies out of New Hampshire.
Zach Kramer of Frontier Airlines says in a statement that demand “did not materialize to support the service.” The suspension begins July 6.
Frontier launched its first non-stop flight from Portsmouth to Orlando in December.
Allegiant Airlines, which also flies out of Portsmouth to several Florida locations including Orlando/Sanford, increased the frequency of its flights from Portsmouth after Frontier started operations at Pease.