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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: What history says about rescheduling elections

March 18. 2017 8:29PM
Exeter Selectwoman Anne Surman, right, spent Thursday campaigning outside the Exeter polls. She said she thinks Gov. Chris Sununu should have declared a state of emergency for Tuesday's blizzard to make it easier for communities to reschedule without confusion. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

THE DEBATE OVER whether town moderators had the right to reschedule voting on Tuesday in light of the March nor'easter will continue well past town meeting season, but the chief lawyer for the New Hampshire Municipal Association maintains there is no question that the moderators acted legally.

And he says he has the legislative history to prove it.

Government Affairs Counsel Cordell Johnston, a familiar face around the State House, did some research into the origins of RSA 40, "Government of Town Meeting," which was cited by many on Tuesday as the authority for moderators to make the change.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner maintains that RSA 40 applies to deliberative sessions and traditional town meetings, but does not apply to ballot booth voting days, which are set in accordance with Chapter 652 of state election law.

Gardner quoted Chapter 652 frequently in a recent interview on the topic: "The Secretary of State with the advice and approval of the Attorney General shall prepare a political calendar for state and town elections setting forth the dates when action required under the election laws must be taken."

He stressed the word "must."

Despite the wording of that chapter, Johnston maintains, "The Secretary of State has no authority over town elections, none. He can express his opinion as can any other citizen, but it's a town issue."

"I know this is being portrayed as a disagreement between the secretary of state and the municipal association," Johnston said, "but it's between him and every municipal lawyer that's looked at the statute."

The municipal lawyer ListServe account lit up with comments since the debate began, according to Johnston, "and everyone has chimed in that RSA 40 applies, and the moderator has this authority."

The section of the law at issue reads this way: "In the event a weather emergency occurs on or before the date of a deliberative session or voting day of a meeting in a town, which the moderator reasonably believes may cause the roads to be hazardous or unsafe, the moderator may, up to 2 hours prior to the scheduled session, postpone and reschedule the deliberative session or voting day of the meeting to another reasonable date, place, and time certain."

The key phrase there is "voting day of a meeting."

Gardner reads that to apply to traditional town meeting, not voting day, because the word "meeting" is right there. If the Legislature had intended it to apply to "voting day," he reasons, the sentence would have ended with those two words.

But Johnston maintains that the terms voting day and town meeting are intermingled in New Hampshire tradition and practice, and that the origins of RSA 40 make clear that it should have applied without exception on Tuesday.

"This section of the law (RSA 40:4) only dates from 1998, " he said. "I went back and looked at legislative history. It came up because there was a bad snow storm and some people in Plymouth were upset that meeting went forward as planned, so they put in this bill."

The bill as originally introduced referred only to deliberative session. It said the moderator can postpone the deliberative session, and that's how it passed the Senate.

Johnston describes what happened next: "It then went to the House, and in committee minutes, one of the committee members asked if it affects voting, and the person who was testifying said it would not, and she said, 'Can we change it so it would also address voting?"

The bill was changed, then passed the House, was reconciled with the Senate and signed into law. It was specifically intended to address gatherings like deliberative sessions and traditional town meetings, as well as election of local officials or poll voting on warrant articles, according to Johnston.

The fact that the secretary of state and the municipal association are both so absolutely sure of their position suggests that the collective wisdom of New Hampshire's 424 lawmakers will have to be brought to bear on the question, and hopefully before the next town meeting season rolls around.

'Gateway to Work' redux

Remember the 'Gateway to Work' program proposed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan last year?

The initiative, which Hassan first announced in her State of the State address, would connect businesses with community colleges for apprenticeship programs, bulk up job training and support efforts by welfare recipients to get in the workforce through child care and transportation assistance.

The idea was to use federal funds originally earmarked for welfare assistance that the state no longer needed but couldn't use in other areas, about $8.2 million in the first year.

The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee refused to act on Hassan's request to authorize the off-budget expenditures after hearings in June, July and August before she gave up. Committee Chair Rep. Neal Kurk said at the time the idea has merit, but should go through the full Legislature.

Several observers predicted the measure would be back in 2017 as a Republican initiative, and sure enough, "Gateway to Work" has morphed into "Granite Workforce," a pilot program with a proposed appropriation of $9 million in the first year.

While not identical, the two concepts share the same principle: use undistributed federal funds from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to get people off welfare and into jobs that employers are anxious to fill.

Like Gateway to Work, the Granite Workforce program would offer training to get people in the program ready for work in high-demand jobs, and subsidize their wages during the early weeks of employment.

The program would also assist participants in addressing "barriers to employment," like transportation, child care, substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence.

The Granite Workforce proposal has been tacked on as an amendment to SB 7, the bill to tighten up on food stamp eligibility, and is scheduled for a public hearing at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.

Chapter and verse

Debate on SB 7, the food stamp bill, created some of the most contentious moments yet this year in the state Senate, as Democrats launched a full-scale assault on the measure, basically accusing its Republican sponsors of trying to take food from the mouths of babies.

State Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, sponsor of the bill, took issue with citations from the Bible and other comments that he said were intended to "shame" supporters of the bill and question their Christianity.

In a loud and emotional counterattack, Avard rattled off several Biblical quotes of his own, including this one from 1 Timothy 5:8, King James version: "But if any man provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel."

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, immediately called a recess after Avard was done to cool the temperature in the room, which had already been overheated by the previous debate on raising the minimum wage.

After an exchange between Sens. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, and Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, in which Sanborn appeared to challenge Feltes on his attendance record at public hearings, Morse banged the gavel and called for decorum.

"I applaud you for speaking out on respect," said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, addressing Morse. "As we debate these fundamental issues, we have great divides, but we still need to respect each other and talk to each other with civility."

Marathon session

It's not hard to understand how tempers might flare in a Senate session that started at 10 a.m. and went well into the evening, with more than 50 bills to debate.

Here are some of the highlights not previously reported.

Approved and headed to the House: SB 234, which establishes a hypodermic syringe and needle exchange; SB 244, raising the exemption from the Interest and Dividends Tax from $2,400 of income to $10,000; SB 242, allowing for the operation of two casinos; and SB 205, establishing a small business jobs fund and tax credit.

Also approved, SB 247, focusing on lead poisoning prevention; SB 193, establishing education savings accounts, which will enable parents to use the state's per-pupil education grants to send their children to private schools; and SB 228, establishing an incentive of $1,000 a year for the first four years of a graduate's employment to keep college graduates in New Hampshire.

Tabled: SB 236, a bill to grant a two-year reauthorization of New Hampshire's Medicaid expansion law. The measure was tabled without debate amid uncertainty as to how proposed changes in federal health care law will affect the state's form of Medicaid expansion.

"We're going to have to wait and see what the feds do," said Majority Leader Jeb Bradley.

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