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New Hampshire votes local issues in town meetings

Residents of Raymond, NH, turn out to vote on March 11, 2014
Residents of Raymond, NH, turn out to vote on March 11, 2014
Harry McClard

Tuesday, March 11, 2014, is the day many of New Hampshire's towns hold their "Town Meetings" to vote on local issues. These meetings are actually the culmination of many weeks of the towns' committees and commissions at which budgets and all other issues related to the upcoming year's operations were discussed and formalized.

New Hampshire's system of government has evolved since its rural days of the 1700's. In New Hampshire, all local governing jurisdiction comes from the state government. In other words, unless the state has formally granted a local body such as a county or city or town the right to do something, then that body cannot undertake that item. A classic example of this concept is the separation of town and school operations. School districts and towns operate as separate entities under the state charter but their taxes are billed to residents of the town on a combined semi-annual property tax bill. And, with no sales or income tax, New Hampshire ranks only behind New Jersey as having the highest property taxes in the United States but it fares much better, not even in the top ten, when considering individual's total state tax burden.

Town Meetings are the means authorized by the State of New Hampshire and most towns use a specific format and schedule as authorized under "SB2" or "Senate Bill 2". This legislation allows towns to have formal budget committees whose members are elected and their mission is to gather information from the school district and the town government to negotiate and establish budgets for the upcoming year. The budget committees have no policing authority over operations once the budgets are approved by the voters. Budgets as developed by the budget committees are presented to voters at "Deliberative Sessions" that occur mostly in early February.

The Deliberative Sessions are moderated by a town moderator who maintains order and manages the agenda. These sessions are mostly orderly but they can occasionally become quite animated especially when items that may cause an increase in the tax rate are brought forward. During the Deliberative Sessions, the wording and even dollar amounts of items that come forward can be modified by majority of the voters present. Due to formalities, the wording of each "Warrant Article" to come forward begins with "To see ...", and in past years when extremely unpopular items came before the voters at the Deliberative Session, the entire item could be modified with the unpopular cost eliminated by modifying the article to read only "To See". The state recently passed legislation that has stopped that from happening. Deliberative Sessions can only serve to debate issues and formalize their wording for placement on a ballot to be voted upon in the "Town Meeting".

Since the schools and towns operate as separate entities, their ballots are entirely separate also. So the voter is given a school ballot and a town ballot and they are even counted separately. The Town Meetings also serve to elect local officials who mostly serve as volunteers with no pay for their service. Town Selectmen and School Board members may receive a small stipend but most other town committee and commission members serve as volunteers.

School Districts in New Hampshire are likely to have a little more than 1000 students in its schools. Compared to the Los Angeles Unified School District with almost 700,000 students, New Hampshire's districts are quite small but they are intended to localize control as much as possible.

Unfortunately, voting at New Hampshire's town meetings has fallen to very low levels with many towns seeing less than 20 percent of its voters taking the time to vote on the local issues.

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