Capital Comments: Will the Claremont District Court Stay Open

By State Senator Bob Odell

There will be a critical vote Tuesday at a special meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on whether the Claremont District Court will stay open for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The current two year budget contains an appropriation for the operations of district courts in Claremont, Colebrook, Milford and Keene for the first year of the biennium.  Those courts could be closed unless the legislature directs the judicial branch to keep the courts open through June of next year.

Senator Molly Kelly and other civic and legal leaders in Keene have come up with an alternative plan for their court so the discussions on Tuesday will be focused on the other three courts.

As amended by the House, the bill contains no appropriation but “requires the judicial branch to continue to operate the Claremont, Colebrook, Milford and Keene District Courts in fiscal year 2011” and  very importantly says “and to fund the operation of such courts within existing appropriations.”

That last phrase gives the judicial branch heartburn.  The courts were closed on Friday and employees were on furlough losing a day’s pay.  The judicial branch has co-operated and accepted financial cuts that the Chief Justice believes imperil the delivery of justice in New Hampshire.  A further recent request by the Governor for additional cuts was not accepted by the courts.

Howard Zibel, speaking on behalf o the Judicial Branch, said “The judicial branch does not oppose the continued operation of these courts.  What the judicial branch strongly opposes is the continued operation of these courts without the legislature appropriating the funds necessary to continue that operation.”

The major cost savings in closing the courts is the rent.  Two courts, Claremont and Colebrook, are in municipal facilities and both communities have agreed to forgo the rent for the next fiscal year.  That leaves the annual rent for the Milford court and some security costs still to be addressed.

If the Senate Finance Committee does not amend the bill and recommends an “ought to pass” motion to the full Senate, a floor vote in the Senate would likely take place on April 14.  If it passes without amendment, it will be on its way to the Governor for signature or veto.

*   *   *

Sticking to the rules is the best way to legislate.  One of the most important rules requires that every bill introduced must receive a public hearing.  Public hearings give interested parties the opportunity to testify on the pros and cons of legislation.  I have seen everyone from Governors to schoolchildren come to the State House to give their opinions on legislation important to them.

Generally, the House and Senate stick by the rules but where the public hearing rule is often not respected is in the committees of conference on the biennial budget.  Several changes were made to the current budget that raised fees and taxes, created new taxes or made demands on the Governor during late night committee sessions. Most of these changes never had had a public hearing.

The mandate in the budget for the Governor was the requirement that he find $25 million in savings through reductions in personnel costs.  Another change was the language to apply the interest and dividend tax to some distributions of income by limited liability corporations.

Neither of these ideas had been vetted in a public hearing and the personnel cuts drew the ire of state employee unions.  The “llc tax” aroused the anger and frustration of thousands of small business owners around the state.  In a sense, neither group had a chance to get their position heard as they never anticipated the budget committees of conference accepting such changes to try to balance the budget.

Another case was the extension of the 9 percent meals and rooms tax to campsites.  Campground owners were stunned when they learned of the new tax last June at the beginning of the high point of the 2009 camping season.  The revenue projected from the new tax was $4 million but the Department of Revenue Administration admits its made an important error in that projection and some believe the annual revenue from the tax could be as little as $700,000.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee has already urged repeal of the campsite tax.  The first bill (SB 474) to repeal the tax was put on the table by the majority in early March and it would take a two-thirds vote to get it off the table.

Thankfully, the House passed another bill (HB 1445) to repeal the campsite tax.  The Ways and Means Committee heard a couple of hours of testimony from campground owners, some of whom had testified earlier on SB 474, emphasizing the negative financial impact of the new tax.  The Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously for an “ought to pass” recommendation to the full Senate.

The value of our traditional legislative public hearing process cannot be undervalued.  A public hearing would have given House and Senate members an opportunity to learn the pluses and the minuses of the campsite tax and avoided the nearly year long battle to fix the problem we created.

As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, I will take HB 1445 to the floor at our next Senate session and ask for passage.  If it passes the Senate, it will go the Governor for his signature.

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