NHCRN Comments: The committee scheduled 30 mins for the hearing, not an hour-and-a-half, and the hearing went on for almost 2.5 hrs, not 3.5 hrs. Also, it was the AFP lobbyist that said the 400 NH-member House is sufficient and therefore local control is not needed, not the committee members.
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
CONCORD — Supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment to grant New Hampshire communities the right to determine what is in their best interests for health, safety, and welfare got an intense grilling from members of the House Municipal and County Government Committee on Tuesday.
The panel had scheduled an hour and a half for the hearing on Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 19 (CACR 19), but after moving to a larger room to accommodate all those who wanted to speak, the hearing went on for more than three and a half hours.
Proponents argued that current law leaves towns powerless to stop projects that could drain resources, hurt the environment, and introduce toxic chemicals into their food or water.
Opponents expressed concerns that giving towns the power to halt projects that could provide an overall benefit to the state would disrupt the economy and undermine the state legislature and regulatory agencies.
Late in the day, as committee chairman James Belanger urged people to be concise with their comments, Stuart Leiderman of Center Barnstead asked for three minutes of oral testimony to accompany his written comments. His impassioned arguments in support of the bill had Belanger finally stop him: “I understand the idea behind the bill, and don’t want to be disrespectful, but he asked for three minutes and he spoke for 13 minutes.”
Leiderman was attempting to settle several questions that arose during earlier testimony. Rep. Francis Gauthier of Claremont repeatedly asked the various speakers how the current system of regulatory laws has failed to provide protection to communities. He cited his own activism in fighting an incinerator project in Claremont that the state Department of Environmental Services had “sanctified” and he said they finally won by taking it to the state Supreme Court.
“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Leiderman said. “This amendment would bring a consensus, not drive it to the court for a resolution.”
Leiderman said the state constitution has been amended 213 times, which he termed “extraordinary.”
“It’s not the monolithic document that a lot of people think it is,” he said. “Citizens look to the constitution for freedoms. It’s a composite to meet the overruling forces, and this amendment should be looked at in that light.”
He said that, instead of looking at government as an entity that operates by opinion — “that I’m right and you’re wrong” — in order to survive, the government must respond to “the kinds of things New Hampshire cities and towns chronically face — contamination, for instance.”
The state and federal government, Leiderman said, often rely on “natural attenuation” to deal with landfill sites, contamination at Air Force bases, and Superfund toxic sites. “Do nothing and let nature take care of it,” he said.
“Those approaches are diminishing the chances for New Hampshire in the future,” he said. “This amendment goes to the beginning of the constitution. It provides checks and balances between governments. … We’re not talking about insurrection.”
CACR 19 is based on the constitutional principle that “All government of right originates from the people, is founded in their consent, and instituted for the general good,” according to the language of the resolution.
Committee members pointed out that New Hampshire is not a home rule state where municipalities can make their own laws; instead, the 400-member House of Representatives ensures that people have an adequate voice at the state level.
Rep. Richard Tripp of Derry suggested that legislative authority would be undermined by allowing towns to make their own rules through rights-based ordinances, and then it would be the courts that end up with the ultimate authority.
Members of the committee kept asking the speakers how they would define “welfare” as outlined in the bill. They suggested it was too broad a term and is subject to individual interpretation.
Henry Ahern of Plymouth agreed. He said he opposed the bill not because of what it seeks to do but because of possible unintended consequences.
“Terms like ‘welfare’ and ‘health’ and ‘public safety’ change in meaning over time,” he said.
“I own a deer farm,” Ahern said. “I work land in two towns. If this passes, one town can say I can’t plant certain seeds in that town. The same goes for the spreading of biosolids. Instead of facts, there can be an emotional reason for making these decisions.”
Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, argued that home rule would mean the state doesn’t need a 400-member House, and it would take power away from the legislature.
“I have a lot of faith in the General Court,” Moore said, noting that he once served in the legislature. “When you look at a constitutional amendment, it not what it’s intended to do, but what it can do.”
He said the amendment would allow individual towns to enact a sales tax. It also would open up the possibility of corruption, he said, arguing that it is difficult to bribe 201 legislators in order to have a majority on one’s side, but getting a majority on a three-person board of selectmen would mean bribing just two people.
Michelle Sanborn of Alexandria, the president and coordinator of the New Hampshire Community Rights Network who also represents the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, testified that the amendment represents only limited home rule and would not override state and federal law.
“This is a people’s amendment,” she said. “It brings clarity to the people, the courts, and businesses. It gives people the right to protect themselves.”
Several speakers spoke of out-of-state businesses that know how to navigate the state’s regulatory laws to get what they want, and towns are powerless to stop them. Rights-based ordinances, they said, would take the process out of the regulatory arena and make it a constitutional matter.
Several speakers asked the committee for support so the amendment could go to the voters for a decision.
Before that can happen, both the House and Senate would need to agree to support the amendment. A House subcommittee will be reviewing the resolution on Feb. 13 and 14, at which time it will make a recommendation on its future.