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October 27. 2012 11:20PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Court urged to rethink voter registration law


 

The Attorney General’s Office has asked the Supreme Court for a ruling that would allow the state’s new voter registration law to be in effect for next month’s election.

The office has filed a motion asking the high court to reconsider a ruling it made Oct. 9 supporting a superior court injunction preventing the law’s implementation.

The law would require anyone registering to vote to declare New Hampshire as his or her residence. Doing so would mean the voter would have to register his or her car in the state and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license, among other things.

According to House Speaker Bill O’Brien and Secretary of State Bill Gardner, “residency’’ and “domicile’’ are the same thing under the new law. Until Senate Bill 318 passed this year, a person’s domicile and residency did not have to be the same in order to register and vote in New Hampshire.

The new law was challenged by four University of New Hampshire students with the help of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Hampshire League of Women Voters.

Strafford County Superior Court Judge John Lewis issued an injunction barring the new law, and the Supreme Court essentially let that ruling stand earlier this month.

According to the Supreme Court’s order: “Because of the complexities of the issues raised and the imminence of the upcoming election, we think it is unrealistic to expect that this case could be concluded in both the superior court and this court prior to the election.”

In the motion to reconsider, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards argues that under the court’s 1978 opinion, a statute is presumed constitutional “except on inescapable grounds.”

She contends the assumption of constitutionality should be enough for the court to stay the injunction and let the new law go into effect.

Edwards notes Lewis made his determination after only four days of considering the evidence and gave the state less than a week to respond.

Edwards writes there was time for the courts to decide the matter, but the Supreme Court denied the state’s motion for an emergency stay four weeks before Election Day.

There is little chance the court will change its mind despite the 3-2 split decision to let the injunction against the new law stand until after the election Nov. 6.

With no decision Friday from the court, voters were able to register under the terms of the old law Saturday, the last day to register for the general election until Election Day itself.

New Hampshire has same-day registration, so a person can register and vote on Election Day; therefore, if the court decides to reverse its earlier decision, there could still be some effect.

More likely, however, the election itself will decide the ultimate outcome for the new voter registration law. If many more Democrats are elected next month, lawmakers could decide to revisit the issue in the next two years before the 2014 elections.

If Republicans hold large majorities again, the law would most likely stand, but it may have to be tweaked to address any court action.

The voter registration suit is not related to the new voter photo ID requirement that also passed the Legislature this year.

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LOOKING GOOD: State revenues have lagged behind what is needed to have a balanced budget for the 2013 fiscal year. For the first quarter of the year, the state was about $3 million below estimates, and for September, it was about $6 million less than anticipated, largely because of a slowdown in business and tobacco tax revenues.

But for October, revenues have already hit their target of $107 million, according to preliminary information. Business taxes have rebounded nicely, already $2 million more than estimates with several more days to go.

The rooms and meals tax continues its strong showing, as does the real estate transfer tax, which just several years ago was millions below its peak years.

Also showing signs of life is the interest and dividends tax, which until the last two years had been very weak in the depressed economy and low-interest environment.

The tobacco tax continues to be below estimates, but could rebound in the next few days. Liquor revenues are currently more than $3 million below estimates.

Another problem is the communications tax, which budget writers expect will take a hit because the state banned Internet access taxes during the last session.

The state budget has a long way to go, and garnering a surplus like the $13 million for 2012 is not going to be easy.

There are too many unbudgeted expenses that will have to be dealt with, including the Medicaid settlement with the feds over a 2004 audit issue.

The new governor will have to learn fast to end the 2013 fiscal year in the black.

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NO MORE FREEBIES: The chairman of the Legislative Ethics Committee, attorney Martin Gross, recently wrote to his executive branch counterpart, Joseph DiBrigida Jr., and Attorney General Michael Delaney about executive branch agencies offering free perks or gifts to lawmakers.

State law forbids lawmakers to take gifts worth more than $25, and that includes state agencies.

Earlier this year, the long tradition of legislators receiving free passes at the state-owned Cannon Mountain ski area ended when the ethics committee ruled the prohibition on lawmakers accepting gifts worth $25 or more applied not only when the gifts came from residents but also when they came from state agencies.

Recently, the Liquor Commission sent lawmakers coupons for specific products in connection with the remodeling of Liquor Store No. 1 in Concord. House Speaker Bill O’Brien sent a letter to House members warning them not to redeem the coupons.

On Friday, Gross outlined the committee’s ruling on the free passes to Cannon Mountain, then wrote that “within the past month, we have learned that two other state agencies have continued to offer items of economic value to legislators, specifically the Department of Agriculture and Markets (complimentary passes to the Eastern States Exposition) and the Liquor Commission (discount coupons for purchase of beverages).”

The value of the passes and coupons is in excess of the $25 limit and would be prohibited, he noted.

“We are satisfied that these offers were made without intent to violate the statute, so we do not ask that you pursue enforcement action. However, we also believe that the offers were probably made in ignorance of the statute’s prohibition and LEC’s Advisory Opinion on the subject,” Gross wrote. “We are concerned that continuation of such practices by executive branch agencies would expose legislators to ethics complaints under RSA 14-B. Therefore, we respectfully request that you take whatever steps you deem appropriate to inform executive branch agencies about their obligations under RSA 15-B to avoid offering or giving prohibited gifts to legislators.”

It’s just not as much fun being a legislator as it used to be.

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HELPING OUT SELECTIVELY: The Committee to Reelect William O’Brien Speaker has been sending mailers in districts in support of some House Republican candidates, but not all.

The brightly colored mailers feature a picture of the representative saying the focus is on improving the economy and job creation, and on the back it says “responsible leadership working for you in Concord.”

In Rockingham District 19, representing Stratham, Republican candidate Rep. Patrick Abrami received the speaker’s help, but the other Republican candidate, Rep. Tim Copeland, did not.

“I won’t get one,” said Copeland, who voted repeatedly against O’Brien on right-to-work bills and their veto overrides and other labor and retirement issues.

Rep. Lee Quandt, R-Exeter, who is opposing O’Brien in the speaker’s race, called the mailers outrageous and said it was a more blatant attempt to buy representatives than he had ever seen before.

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FREE STATE PROJECT: You have to give credit to the folks in the Free State Project. They have members on both sides of the ticket in at least one House race.

In Hillsborough 12, which represents Ward 5 in Manchester, Tim O’Flaherty is on the Democratic side of the ticket and Daniel Garthwaite is on the Republican side.

Garthwaite heads research for the board of directors of the NH Liberty Alliance. He and O’Flaherty live at the same Central Street address in Manchester.

On O’Flaherty’s Facebook page, he lists the Free State Project as one of his activities, and he has the website Stateless Governance.

O’Flaherty won the Democratic primary in a recount after initial results showed he had tied former Rep. Richard Komi.

O’Flaherty and Rep. Ted Rokas are the two Democrats in the race, while Garthwaite is the only Republican, so either Garthwaite or O’Flaherty will win a seat unless there is a write-in campaign.

Neither O’Flaherty nor Garthwaite could be reached for comment.

Don Manning, the chairman of the Manchester City Democrats, said he met with O’Flaherty after the primary and learned he was a big advocate of privacy. “He is concerned about government not overreaching into people’s personal lives,” Manning said.

They talked about labor issues and the need to work on legislation that pertains to the city.

“He was a pleasant young man,” Manning said. “It was a positive and upbeat conversation.”

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Garry Rayno may be reached at grayno@unionleader.com.


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