CONCORD — New Hampshire’s longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner survived a serious challenge from former Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern in January, eking out a four-vote win in a joint session of House and Senate.
In the aftermath of that election, Republican representatives who supported Gardner filed a bill (HB 374) to prohibit candidates for Secretary of State and State Treasurer from forming political committees or political advocacy organizations.
Those two positions are elected by lawmakers, not the general voting population, which puts them in a separate category in which fundraising could be prohibited, but the House voted against that on Thursday, killing the bill 236-139.
Supporters of the bill argued that the estimated $250,000 raised by Van Ostern, mostly from Democratic donors upset with Gardner’s support for GOP-backed election laws, set a dangerous precedent.
“Those constitutional offices should not be beholden to the fundraising process,” said Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, R-Derry. A law banning fund-raising in contests for Secretary of State and State Treasurer “would be consistent with the state constitution and would level the playing field,” she said.
Rep. William Pearson, D-Keene, said the matter is “not just about elections but free speech.”
“Candidates deserve the unfettered opportunity to make their views known so that the electorate can intelligently evaluate their qualities and positions,” he said.
“Secretary of State Gardner is still our Secretary of State, despite a robust election process that just happened, without these sorts of restrictions on the books. He enjoys many advantages of incumbency, and he does not need the legislature to further advantage his office by suppressing political speech.”
There are just three states in which the legislature elects the Secretary of State — New Hampshire, Maine and Tennessee. Maine recently passed a law prohibiting its treasurer from raising campaign funds.
Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan testified in support of the bill at its public hearing before the Election Law Committee.
“The Secretary of State has to be above reproach, has to run the office in a non-partisan fashion, and cannot look like he or she is playing favorites because of party affiliation or because someone has made a contribution,” said Scanlan. “When we start going down that road, we lose something that is currently special in New Hampshire.”
Other House bills
The House also passed a bill (HB 497) that would require the state to pay its share of retirement system contributions for teachers and municipal employees, in a 256-120 vote.
Before 2008, the state contributed 35 percent of the retirement liability to the state system. By 2012, that amount was reduced to zero, leaving local taxpayers to shoulder the entire employer share.
“Because of this financial burden, many municipalities have had to forgo other needs in order to fund their retirement contributions,” said Rep. Jaci Grote, D-Rye. “Many schools have a gap in their budgets due to this burden as well.”
The House also passed a bill (HB 211) that prohibits employers from requiring people to list their previous salary on job applications.