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Marsy's Law faces high hurdle in NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 03. 2018 11:30PM

CONCORD - The New Hampshire campaign for crime victim rights known as Marsy's Law has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, 23 of 24 state senators, House Republican and Democratic leaders and law enforcement leaders at every level.

So why are backers internally so worried about its ultimate success this November?

That's because they have to navigate the most difficult state voter approval process in America, passing an amendment to New Hampshire's Constitution on a statewide general election ballot.

"The amendment process here is a political minefield; it's never easy and you can do everything right and still lose," said longtime State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, who's backing the campaign.

Unlike most states, New Hampshire has no referendum process which means amending the state Constitution is the only way to affect public policy through the ballot box.

Our Constitution sets a very high bar. First it requires a three-fifths majority vote in the House of Representatives and the State Senate. Then voters must endorse the proposition by a two-thirds majority.

No other state has as high a standard for voter approval and in most states even the legislative approval that is needed is a simple majority.

So try as they might, one well-intentioned cause after another has died on the political ash heap of New Hampshire history.

"You really have to be organized in how you present your proposal first to the Legislature and then to the voters," said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.

"The strategy to get through the first and second hurdle can also be very different. If it were easy we'd see amendments pass every two years but that's of course not the case," Bradley said.

The last time the voters amended the state Constitution was in 2006 when outrage over a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo vs. the city of New London, Conn., moved lawmakers to support preventing the government from using eminent domain to benefit someone's private development.

Political observers point to this effort as the crowning constitutional amendment achievement in modern history.

Conservative activists were so angry at then-Supreme Court Justice David Souter for joining in the court majority that they took pyrrhic steps to try to seize his private property in Weare, N.H.

John Lynch, a popular Democratic governor, endorsed the question, giving cover to those in his party since the seeds of this amendment had Republican origins.

Lynch won re-election with 70 percent support and the amendment did even better, getting a staggering 86 percent.

The same year, voters gave 71 percent backing to another amendment that requires a city or town to get its own House member if it has enough residents.

Since 2006, the Legislature has considered 140 different amendment proposals.

In 1998, supporters of then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen wanted to change all references in the Constitution from "His Excellency" to "His or Her Excellency."

It failed to reach critical mass with only 57 percent public support.

"To this day, I'll never get that, how people didn't want to enshrine in the Constitution that we just had our first woman in history elected governor," D'Allesandro said.

Bradley's personal favorite was home rule authority, giving cities and towns the power to approve their own policies without needing permission from the Legislature.

"That was a classic case. I thought it would win support from conservatives because it was all about local control and from liberals because they saw this could help them promote local causes including those that spend more money without state approval," Bradley recalled.

Instead this amendment badly failed, getting only 48 percent of the vote.

Since 2006, only two have even gotten to the ballot, both in 2012.

In that election, voters refused to amend the Constitution to outlaw a state income tax and soundly rejected a constitutional convention.

 (New Hampshire Sunday News)

 (New Hampshire Sunday News)

Amanda Grady Sexton, director of the Marsy's Law campaign, said in the 17 years she's worked for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, a victim rights amendment has always been a top priority.

"We have always known how hard it is to pass an amendment and we think it should be," Grady Sexton said. "Until Marsy's Law gave the resources to launch this campaign, the idea to pursue one has never been in the cards."

Marsy's Law founder Henry Nicholas III is supplying those resources - expected to cost more than $1 million. 

For Marsy's Law, this battle looks all but won in the Senate but it's by no means a settled matter in the House.

"You've got so many tribes in the House, factions in both parties and to get to 60 percent you had better have some support in all camps," said D'Allesandro.

A veteran lobbyist, Grady Sexton got approval of the national group to hire her own lobbying force of 12 to represent the effort.

The primary group consists of longtime Republican operative Mike Dennehy, Concord Democratic Mayor Jim Bouley, prominent Democratic activist Jim Demers, former legislative aide and Republican adviser Bruce Berke and veteran lobbyist Jodi Grimbilas.

Former Congressman, Superior Court Justice and defense lawyer Chuck Douglas is giving legal counsel to the campaign while senior Republican campaign strategist Rich Killion is on board as a consultant. The other five signed up on this issue also work for these lobbying firms.

"I think we have assembled an absolutely A team; it's a diverse group of incredibly hard working people and we decided in the interest of transparency to have them all register as lobbyists," Grady Sexton said.

The group has declined to discuss finances behind this campaign.

The first public reports on lobbyist spending must be filed by April 25.

Marsy's Law for New Hampshire, the political committee to promote the amendment, doesn't have to disclose its initial spending until June 20.

This group has some winning history; Douglas, Killion and Dennehy were all on the lobbying team that pushed the eminent domain amendment 12 years ago.

The opposition has its own lobbyists, a five-person team led by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg whose Legislative Solutions LLC represents the American Civil Liberties Union Of New Hampshire.

"We're up against a dream team but legislators are hearing us make the case that there are all kinds of unintended consequences with an amendment such as this," said Clegg during a recent interview.

Grady Sexton said the group has a budget outline for a public voter amendment campaign; it's a "rough number" she did not disclose.

If lawmakers endorse this, the coalition will mobilize staff and volunteers at their 13 crisis centers to bring the stories of victims to the voters, she said.

There's no doubt it will include paid media coverage which could begin later this spring.

What the campaign will not do is write re-election campaign checks to their supporters, she stressed.

"You'll see none of that in this campaign, any direct donations to the candidates," Grady Sexton said.

Both Senators Bradley and D'Allesandro said that's never come up in their discussions.

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