Rindge Rep. Matthew Santonastaso is under no illusion about his chances of winning broad support in the N.H. Legislature for a proposed constitutional amendment for New Hampshire to declare independence from the United States.
But the Republican lawmaker thinks the idea has merit and is worthy of serious discussion.
The measure, CACR 32, gets a public hearing on the afternoon of Jan. 20 before the N.H. House State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee in the Legislative Office Building in Concord.
“There was a massive base of people that were really asking me to put this bill in for secession,” he said in an interview. “As a first-termer I don’t really know the ropes yet, and Rep. Mike Sylvia said he would do it with me.”
Sylvia, R-Belmont, became the prime sponsor, and Santonastaso is one of six co-sponsors. All are Republicans.
“It’s not going to pass, but I did want to represent the sentiment of people who have been asking for this for over a decade,” Santonastaso said.
Rep. Amanda Toll, D-Keene, who is on the committee that will consider the bill, called the proposal ridiculous.
“This bill represents a problematic, dangerous, and deeply flawed right-wing ideology that presumes that government is fundamentally bad,” she said in an email. “It is my hope that the New Hampshire legislature will reject this reactionary bill that would lead to chaos and anarchy.”
Santonastaso said polling has shown some public support for secession.
A June survey by YouGov and Bright Line Watch indicated that 37 percent of Americans, and 34 percent of those in the Northeast, had a willingness for their state to secede from the U.S. and join a new union with other states in their region.
The survey, which polled 2,750 people, cautions that the results reflect initial reactions by respondents about an issue they were unlikely to have considered carefully.
But Santonastaso, whose district covers Dublin, Fitzwilliam, Harrisville, Jaffrey, Rindge and Roxbury, has given the idea ample consideration.
He said that if New Hampshire were to become independent from the U.S., the state would retain its American identity.
“It’s just about having a different political arrangement with the federal government,” said Santonastaso, who served in the U.S. Army. “It’s not un-American to want independence. It’s an extremely American thing to do.”
With the money that would be saved by not having to pay federal taxes, New Hampshire residents would cover costs now borne by the federal government, including in the areas of transportation and security.
“We don’t need someone in D.C. to figure it out for us,” he said. “We could figure it out here.”
Some of the federal tax money paid by New Hampshire residents now goes to the U.S. Defense budget, and Santonastaso has a problem with that as well. He feels the military-industrial complex weakens the country.
“I don’t know how a fighter jet is protecting me in New Hampshire,” he said. “Nobody could ever articulate why we were in Iraq, walking around, giving people a hard time. How did that protect people back home?
“We pay a bunch of people to make machines that don’t do any good except in blowing people up.”
To succeed as constitutional amendment, the proposal would require 60 percent support in the N.H. House and Senate and then two-thirds support by voters.
Santonastaso said it’s hard to say how the U.S. government would react if a state were to try to secede.
“Look to Brexit to see how that works out,” he said, referring to the United Kingdom’s peaceful departure from the European Union.
“The idea that there would be an invasion or something like that is kind of ridiculous. We’re living in a globalized world now. We’re not really geographically aligned. If New Hampshire left the union, it could be treated like the American government treats Canada.”
Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, said CACR 32 epitomizes anti-government and anti-democratic thought within the Republican Party.
“You know it may seem like a joke to many people, but I think it represents a serious and dangerous trend in the New Hampshire Republican majority in the House,” he said. “I think it goes along with bashing public schools, teachers and unions, and really attempting to limit government in a very radical way.”
This proposal also shows the frightening extent to which some people are obsessed with personal liberty above all else, he said.
“It comes down to whether we believe in the common good or do we believe only in personal choice,” Schapiro said.
Dartmouth Professor John M. Carey, associate dean of faculty for the social sciences, and co-founder of Bright Line Watch, said the organization decided to ask survey participants about secession to better understand the public’s sense of exasperation about the functioning of American democratic institutions.
The organization first asked the question in a survey a year ago, and then again in June. Support for secession did not wane.
Carey said he was surprised by this and by the percentage of people who expressed support for their state leaving the union.
“Talking about secession is a radical proposition, so I take this as a pretty strong signal that people are frustrated with the performance of democratic institutions in this country,” he said.
The legal ability of states to secede has been questioned by scholars. The U.S. Supreme Court found in an 1869 case out of Texas that the United States is “an indestructible union” from which no state can secede.
In a 2006 letter, then-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said the matter was clear.
“If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede,” he said.
Aside from Sylvia and Santonastaso, the other sponsors of the proposed constitutional amendment are Reps. Peter Torosian of Atkinson, Ray Howard of Alton, Dennis Green of Hampstead, Dustin Dodge of Raymond and Glenn Bailey of Milton.