By THOMAS CALDWELL, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Freshman Rep. Tony Labranche, D-Amherst, has introduced several proposed constitutional amendments that would change the way New Hampshire’s representative form of government would work.
Among the changes is a term-limit proposal that would prevent anyone from holding a legislative office for more than 15 terms, and another that would allocate legislative seats on a proportional basis.
Speaking before the House Legislative Administration Committee on Jan. 12, Labranche said it was a Republican in his home district that originally proposed term limits. Labranche said he originally opposed the idea, but after seeing how many of those representing New Hampshire citizens in Concord had served multiple terms, he changed his mind. He noted that one representative has been serving since 1974, the year Labranche’s mother was born.
“I believe that the people … deserve a fresh voice in the legislature,” he said. “What this seeks to do is to prevent lifetime membership of the House.”
Committee member Vanessa Sheehan, R-Milford, said, “I personally think there’s a lot of value to experience. People don’t necessarily go stagnant. … Fifteen two-year terms would be about 30 years of experience in the House, and I don’t believe there’s necessarily anything wrong with having experience.”
Committee members also noted the difficulty of finding enough people to run for the House in some districts. Many residents work full-time and cannot meet Concord’s legislative schedule.
Labranche acknowledged that problem, but said the people should be able to decide whether they want term limits.
Dan Itse, a former state representative now living in Manchester, testified, “I oppose this bill with everything I can muster.” He said that, contrary to Labranche’s contention that the legislature needs more diversity, “I think the New Hampshire House is a remarkably diverse body by consequence of the fact that we get paid next to nothing. It requires that everybody in one way or another be a member of the community. Nobody can come up here and park and make this a career.”
On proportional representation, Labranche cited the extreme polarization and toxicity that exists between the political parties to make his case that the state should allot 100 of the House seats based on the percentage of votes each party gets during the election, while the remaining seats would be based on the last general census. Many other countries take such an approach, he said, and it results in the representatives having to sit down and negotiate to reach a consensus.
Committee Chair Gregory Hill, R-Northfield, asked how such an amendment would affect the redistricting maps. In attempting to explain, Labranche said it would basically make New Hampshire an at-large district for those 100 seats, so the legislature would have to reapportion those districts or wait until the next redistricting process.
Questions followed about how the plan would affect counties, since representatives also serve on county delegations, and about what it would mean for independent voters who currently are able to vote on either ballot in the primary before reverting back to independent status. Additionally, Labranche was questioned on how accountable the at-large representatives would be to people on the other side of the state.
Another proposed amendment that Labranche offered would lower the minimum age requirement to run for state senate from 30 to 25. He said that age barrier makes no sense when 25-year-olds are trusted with “matters of life and death and trillion-dollar budgets” when they serve in the military.
Hill asked for data from other states that have lowered the age requirement on whether it has resulted in younger people getting elected to office.
Labranche was not the only one suggesting major changes in how New Hampshire government functions. Democrat Casey Conley of Dover testified on behalf of CACR 29, which would lower the number of representatives from the current 400 to no more than 200. Conley cited the low pay and difficulty of getting people to run for the legislature, saying that 10 to 20 percent of the current representative do not show up, and “some do not show up at all.”
He was questioned on what his proposal would mean to legislators who already have heavy workloads. Conley said fewer reps would mean fewer bills to review, and that today’s huge committees could be smaller to allow some of the representatives to sit on other committees.
Nicole Klein-Knight, D-Manchester, agreed, saying there would be “less bills, less obstruction, and more accountability, and open the door for more independent people to serve.”
It was another bill that Itse “opposed vehemently.”
“Reducing the number of legislators is a really bad idea,” he said, saying it limits people’s ability to know their reps, and he said it would increase costs by creating more competition for each seat, and it would increase the influence of lobbyists.
Itse, in fact, spoke on each of the proposed amendments, saying that having so many of them would lead to a pages-long ballot for voters to digest.
He did support Rep. Norm Silber’s proposal to have an elected attorney-general. The Republican from Gilford argued that the executive council routinely “rubber-stamps” the governor’s AG nominations, and the office would be more responsive if the office was subject to election by either the legislature or the voters themselves.
“They would have to stand for re-election on their record,” Silber said.
He said he was prompted to introduce the amendment by the FRM scandal. Although there were numerous reports of potential fraud relating to Financial Resources Mortgage, the several state agencies offering oversight did not act on them in time, and many people were defrauded in a Ponzi scheme. The legislature agreed last year to use taxpayer money to partially reimburse those who invested in FRM, believing they would make money on the arrangement.
Asked whether having the attorney-general elected, rather than appointed would have prevented the FRM tragedy, Silber said it would not have prevented it, but the state would have acted more quickly to the complaints.
Silber also proposed an amendment to make all state judges subject to recall. Currently, they are appointed to serve until age 70. The only way a judge can be removed from office is by impeachment — a high bar that is rarely met.
He said the reason for that amendment is the complaints he has received about Family Court where judges have a great deal of discretion over child custody and child removal decisions.
Rep. Michael Moffett, R-Loudon, sponsored an amendment that would allow the General Court to authorize recall elections. He explained that the amendment is intended to allow municipalities to recall elected officials who abuse their office to “wreak havoc.” He said he is not referring to people on both side of the aisle who embrace extremist philosophies, but only those whose only motivation is to create problems for their communities.
Labranche is also the prime sponsor of CACR 23, to update the state constitution to make all references to people gender-neutral.
“It failed to meet the threshold,” Labranche said, “but it was just 10 percent shy from passing.” Today, he said, 66 percent of New Hampshire voters are in favor of the change.
If passed, references to “men” would change to “people” and the pronoun “his” would become “theirs” among other changes. The governor would be addressed as “Their Excellency.”
The House Legislative Administration Committee will hold an executive meeting to decide whether to recommend the articles, and will issue a majority report and perhaps a minority report for the full House to consider. If any articles make it through the process, the proposals would go to the Senate during crossover, Hill said.