No to the three Constitution-related questions on Tuesday’s ballot - Editorial

No to the three Constitution-related questions on Tuesday’s ballot

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Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 8:00 am

A move to enshrine New Hampshire’s income-tax free status in the state’s constitution is the first question on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters will be asked whether to change the constitution to read: “Notwithstanding any general or special provision of this constitution, the general court shall not have the power or authority to impose and levy any assessment, rate, or tax upon income earned by any natural person; however; nothing in this Article shall be construed to prohibit any tax in effect on January 1, 2012, or adjustment to the rate of such a tax.”

The answer ought to be no.

Supporters of the amendment say New Hampshire’s lack of general income and sales taxes gives the state a competitive economic edge — the so-called “New Hampshire Advantage” — over other New England states that have taxes. The uncertainty over the possibility of new taxes dulls that edge, they say. Backers of the amendment add that if residents in the state eventually want an income tax, they could go back and repeal the amendment. The proposed amendment has turned into a political football, with several candidates for state office who support the amendment claiming those who don’t are showing support for an income tax.

That logic just doesn’t add up. Today’s lawmakers have no more idea what the future holds than those who served centuries ago. The state boasts a robust representative democracy — with more than 400 people chosen by voters to go to Concord and speak for their interests. If the people of New Hampshire decide down the road that an income tax is in their best interest, they should be able to elect lawmakers who will act on their wishes.

An amendment reflecting today’s political will is a cynical pronouncement that our children and grandchildren won’t have the good sense to do what’s best for themselves. We disagree.

Court rules

The second ballot question takes up the Legislature’s role in making rules for New Hampshire courts. It asks voters if they favor continuing the current practice — where the chief justice of the courts, with concurrence by the state Supreme Court, makes rules — while adding that “the legislature shall have a concurrent power to regulate the same matters by statute. In the event of a conflict between a statute and a court rule, the statute, if not otherwise contrary to this constitution, shall prevail over the rule.”

That means, if approved by voters, the Legislature would gain authority to make rules for the state courts, on such matters as what constitutes contempt of court. And if there was disagreement between the justices and lawmakers, the Legislature would have final say.

Granting the lawmakers that responsibility would clearly allow them to overstep the separation of the powers that was built into the state’s government as a way to check and balance power among the branches. Voters should say no.

The Legislature recently took another dangerous step to inject itself into the workings of the court, through reestablishment of a legislative committee that died more than a century ago, which has reviewed numerous complaints about judges by aggrieved parties, particularly in family court cases.

Not only would the amendment further upset the balance of power, but lawmakers who support this move haven’t adequately proven a need for reform of the system at all. The constitution is open to amendment for a reason — its framers knew the world would change and there might be a need for the document to change as well. But there should be a high threshold for doing so. As far as we’re concerned, supporters have not made a case that meets that threshold.

Constitutional convention

The final question, while containing the simplest language of the three, would have the farthest-reaching effects if passed.

It asks voters: “Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the constitution?”

Plainly put, if voters approve this measure at the polls next week, the entire state constitution would be open for review and revision. Proposed changes to the document would be voted on by a delegation of representatives which, if approved by a three-fifths vote of delegates, would then be passed to voters at the next election for final say on ratification.

A similar measure appeared on the ballot in 2002 and failed. Then, as now, our view has been that if specific changes are called for, voters should be presented with them on the ballot, as with the proposed income tax and court rules amendments. Before 1980, the state’s constitution could be amended only by asking voters for a convention — a question that is still required by law to appear on the ballot every 10 years — but, now that the Legislature can pose specific amendments for voters at the polls, we see no need for a convention.

Voters should say no to a convention to make it clear that, while changes may someday be needed, there’s no clear or driving reason at this time to open the state’s governing document to a potential host of changes.

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