Legislative Efforts Bear Fruit

Cordell Johnston

When NHMA members think about the benefits they receive for their dues, they tend to focus on the legal services, the many training opportunities for local officials, and publications like Town and City. All of those are important, of course, but another very large part of the equation is the legislative advocacy that profoundly influences state laws affecting municipalities. The ability to speak with a collective voice at the legislature is one of the most significant advantages of NHMA membership.

In any given year, NHMA staff members follow 200-300 pieces of legislation and work with local officials to advance and protect municipal interests. In 2013, NHMA staff followed about 220 bills of municipal interest, including the mother of all bills, the state budget. The results included a few major victories and a multitude of smaller ones, with no significant losses. We would call it a very good year!

State Budget Restores Municipal Funding

State Aid Grants (SAG)

Undoubtedly the biggest success was the restoration of funding in the state budget for Department of Environmental Services (DES) grants for municipal water and wastewater facilities and landfill closures. Funding for new grants had been suspended since 2008, leaving some 60 municipalities without promised state aid after they had already committed to these environmental projects. The restored payments for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 will amount to almost $9.5 million, bringing total grants for those years to $19 million.

State Aid to Municipalities: 2012-2015 (Excluding Education)

State Aid to Municipalities: Environmental Grants 2010-2015

While many people in the legislature, in local government, and at DES deserve credit for this result, it would not have happened without the efforts of NHMA lobbyist Tim Fortier and Jaffrey selectman Don MacIsaac, a member of NHMA’s Committee on Government Affairs. Together they organized an impressive grassroots campaign and worked with dozens of local officials, legislators, and DES staff to shepherd the legislation through the process. In addition, NHMA Government Finance Advisor Barbara Reid provided important financial analysis and shadowed the House and Senate Finance Committees throughout their deliberations.

More Meals and Rooms Tax Revenue

Even if your municipality is not one of the 60 that will receive the delayed state aid grants, it will benefit from another budgetary success—a $5 million increase in meals and rooms tax distributions to municipalities in fiscal year 2015. That distribution, which was supposed to be increasing every year, had been frozen at $58.8 million since 2009. NHMA and its members have been persistent in reminding state officials about the effects of these state funding cuts, and this year the legislature listened. NHMA’s constant presence at the state house makes it impossible for legislators to forget about the needs of municipalities.

LCHIP and Flood Control

Other budget successes included the inclusion of $8.5 million for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) and $1.57 million for payments in lieu of taxes to municipalities with land in flood control compacts. There were no reductions in payments to municipalities for any programs.

Elections, Manifests, Water and Sewer, and More

In addition to the budget, there are many legislative changes that will help to make municipal government more efficient and effective. Some of the more important are listed below. NHMA actively supported each of these bills, and NHMA staff drafted or helped to draft many of them.

Processing Absentee Ballots

One disappointment was the Governor’s veto of HB 183, which would allow moderators to begin processing ballots two hours after the polls open on election day, rather than waiting until 1:00, as the law currently requires. The bill passed both the House and the Senate on voice votes after a number of moderators testified that because of the law’s unnecessary requirement, they were still processing absentee ballots late into the night after the November elections.

Despite the unfortunate result, the effort around this bill was another model of grassroots lobbying by local officials. Dozens of moderators rallied support by sharing information in their on-line discussion group (created and managed by NHMA), testifying at the legislative hearings, and lobbying their legislators and the Governor. City and town clerks, supervisors of the checklist, and other municipal officials added their support. Whether the legislature will attempt an override of the veto this fall remains to be seen. If not, the bill will be back next year, again with overwhelming support, and we are optimistic of solving this problem before the 2014 state elections.

Voter Identification

HB 595 delays until September 2015 the implementation of the stricter identification requirements in the voter ID bill that was enacted last year, including the requirement that election officials take photographs of voters who vote without showing an ID. The City and Town Clerks Association and many moderators were active in supporting this bill. Both of those groups, as well as NHMA, would have preferred that the “phase 2” requirements be repealed instead of merely delayed, but the two-year delay was the best compromise that could be reached. It is hoped that the phase 2 requirements will be repealed eventually.

No Meeting Required to Sign Manifest

Many boards of selectmen have struggled with the procedure for signing a manifest ordering payments by the treasurer. Because the manifest must be signed by a majority of the selectmen, the Right-to-Know Law has been interpreted to require that it occur at a public meeting. Consequently, boards often have to deal with the inefficiency of holding a formal public meeting for the sole purpose of signing the manifest.

HB 522 solves that problem by expressly allowing the selectmen to sign the manifest “noncontemporaneously” outside a public meeting. The manifest itself is still subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law, and if a quorum of the board meets to sign the manifest at the same time, they would have to comply with the law.

Burning Untreated Lumber at Transfer Stations

Without legislation this year, the law allowing municipal transfer stations to burn incidental amounts of untreated lumber would have expired at the end of the year, leaving a number of municipalities with no good option for disposing of such lumber. SB 31 avoids that problem by making the exemption permanent. In fact, opting for the belt-and-suspenders approach, the legislature also passed a virtually identical bill, HB 517, that does exactly the same thing!

Electronic Billing for Water and Sewer Services

Last year the legislature passed a law allowing municipalities to send tax bills electronically, with the taxpayer’s consent. That law was intended to allow electronic billing for water and sewer services as well (again, with the customer’s consent), but that authority was inadvertently omitted. SB 111 corrected that omission this year. (SB 111 also establishes a procedure for a town to authorize appropriations for a capital project over a period of up to five years. Although NHMA did not take a position on that aspect of the bill, it should be useful in some circumstances.)

Water and Sewer Default Budgets

Speaking of water and sewer, SB 197 authorizes a town that operates under the official ballot referendum (SB 2) form of town meeting to appropriate funds for water or sewer operations through a separate warrant article if the appropriation is to be raised through user charges or fees, and to include a default amount, based on the amount of the appropriation for the prior year, in the event the article is not approved. This will enable SB 2 towns to establish water and sewer budgets that include anticipated increases and present them separate from the operating budget, without worrying that they might be rejected and leave the town with no appropriation for those services.

Water and Sewer Utility Districts

Continuing with the theme, SB 11 authorizes a municipality to establish a “water and/or sewer utility district” for the purpose of providing water for domestic uses, wastewater management, and related services. The goal is to enable a municipality to create such a district to attract and sustain commercial development, without creating a village district as a separate political subdivision. The municipality would pay for water and/or sewer facilities through assessments on the benefited properties. As an alternative to constructing its own water and sewer facilities, a municipality could form a district with a neighboring city or town that already has the infrastructure.

This bill sailed through the Senate without a problem and was recommended as Ought to Pass on an 18-0 vote by the House committee that reviewed it. However, it ran into last-minute problems when outside groups began claiming that the bill was part of an international conspiracy to confiscate and/or tax private wells and rain water. Seriously. House passage was delayed for several weeks, during which NHMA worked with local officials and the bill’s sponsors to debunk the myths. Ultimately, the House passed the bill by a vote of 254-74.

Planning and Zoning

It was a relatively quiet year for changes to planning and zoning law, but NHMA assisted with two bills that should make procedures a little smoother both for municipalities and for land use applicants. SB 49 modifies the procedure for appealing planning board decisions to the zoning board of adjustment and/or the superior court, and eliminates the risk that a party will lose all appeal rights by inadvertently appealing to the wrong forum. This should help to reduce attorney fees and costs by eliminating duplicative appeals.

HB 278 clarifies the law regarding a planning board’s requirement of fire suppression sprinklers for residential developments. Under a law passed two years ago, the planning board may not require sprinklers as a condition of a residential subdivision approval. This had left open the question whether, if the applicant offered to install sprinklers in order to obtain board approval, the installation of sprinklers could be made an enforceable condition of approval. HB 278 states that it can.

And Still More

The foregoing is just a partial list of new legislation that will facilitate the work of municipal government. You can read about all of the 2013 laws affecting municipalities in NHMA’s Final Legislative Bulletin, which was sent to members recently and is available on the NHMA website, www.nhmunicipal.org.

Playing Defense

Advocating for good legislation is only half the battle—and often less than half. Much of the NHMA staff’s work goes toward opposing legislation that, although usually well intentioned, would actually make the work of municipal government harder. Fortunately, there were far fewer of those bills this year than last year, but there were still enough to provide some excitement. As always, some of the best news for municipalities is what didn’t pass.

Binding Arbitration

Every few years, a bill is introduced to require binding arbitration to resolve public employee collective bargaining impasses. NHMA, along with the New Hampshire School Boards Association and the New Hampshire Association of Counties, has successfully opposed such legislation for decades, thus saving municipalities untold thousands—probably millions—of dollars in attorney and arbitration fees, not to mention increased labor costs. As a result of this continuing effort, even some of the most pro-labor legislators have come to accept that mandatory binding arbitration is a bad idea.

Still, the bills keep coming. This year, HB 178, as introduced, would have imposed binding arbitration in the event of an impasse, but after extensive work in a subcommittee, it was completely rewritten. As ultimately passed by both houses, it says nothing about arbitration, but merely requires the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) to develop and maintain training programs for collective bargaining, and requires that the vote of any legislative body on a collective bargaining agreement be reported to the PELRB within 14 days.

Retiree Notification

Sometimes it takes a second bite at the apple to stop a bad bill. HB 364, as passed by the House, would have required a public employer to provide notice about the limitations on part-time employment to any retired member of the New Hampshire Retirement System prior to hiring the person, and annually thereafter if that person is hired as a part-time employee.

NHMA repeatedly pressed its concern that this requirement could impose liability on a public employer in the event that a retiree exceeds the hour limit and is required to pay back pension benefits to NHRS. The House rejected this concern, but the Senate listened and eliminated the requirement. HB 364 was ultimately killed, and its provisions were incorporated into another bill, HB 342, but with the notice requirement placed solely on NHRS, not on the employer.

An Effort to Seize Control of NHMA

Easily the most “personal” piece of legislation for NHMA this year was SB 78, which would have taken control of the Municipal Association away from its members and allowed the legislature to dictate how the organization would be governed. Most alarming was the bill’s provision limiting NHMA’s lobbying activities. After many municipal officials expressed their outrage through testimony and personal contacts with their senators, the bill was killed.

Questioning Clerks’ “Investment”

Another “solution in search of a problem,” HB 541 would have required every city clerk to be a resident of the city, and to be elected by the council or mayor and aldermen. In testimony before the House Municipal & County Government Committee, the one person who supported the bill suggested that a clerk who does not live in the city where he or she serves (which is the case in several cities) is not sufficiently “invested” in the city.

NHMA vigorously opposed the bill, as did the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks’ Association. The committee voted 20-0 to recommend killing the bill, and it died quietly in the House.

Hiring Bad Credit Risks

Good intentions sometimes come with bad consequences. HB 357 attempted to prevent employers from considering a prospective employee’s credit history in making hiring decisions. Whether that is a good idea in general may be debated, but a municipality certainly has a legitimate interest in the credit history of someone who is being considered for a position as finance director, treasurer, deputy clerk, or any number of other jobs involving the handling of municipal funds. NHMA commented on the bill and secured an amendment exempting local governments from the prohibition. The bill passed both houses with that exemption included, but ultimately died in a committee of conference for other reasons.

Limits on Default Budgets

Almost every year there are efforts to limit or redefine the default budget used in SB 2 towns. These typically take the form of prohibiting the default budget from exceeding the proposed new operating budget, or limiting the amount by which it can exceed last year’s operating budget, or eliminating items from the current definition of the default budget. NHMA regularly explains why these limitations would cause more problems than they would solve, and so far the legislature has always listened.

Our concern is that while some towns have had problems, including allegations of attempts to manipulate the default budget, legislative changes targeted to one town’s issues will affect every town. If towns want to change the definition of the default budget or make other alterations to their official ballot town meeting processes, we encourage them to adopt a charter under RSA 49-D that gives them the flexibility to do so.

Perhaps it is evidence of success that there was only one such bill this year, compared to five last year. HB 460 would have limited the default budget to an amount 10 percent higher than the previous year’s operating budget, and would have allowed the legislative body to amend the default budget at the deliberative session. With input from NHMA, the bill was killed.

Thanks—And Keep Up the Good Work!

NHMA thanks all of the municipal officials, legislators, and others who worked so hard this year for the benefit of cities and towns. Municipal officials are encouraged to stay in touch with their legislators during the “off season” and keep them informed about municipal government issues that could be addressed by legislation. (The deadline for House members to file legislation for 2014 is September 27. The deadline for senators is October 25.) And, as always, please contact NHMA’s Government Affairs staff with any questions or concerns.

Cordell Johnston is Government Affairs Counsel for the New Hampshire Municipal Association. He may be contacted at 800-852-3358 ext. 3408 or at governmentaffairs@nhmunicipal.org.