By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The genesis for establishing a ballot initiative process in New Hampshire was the Senate’s failure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, a representative said Thursday.
Speaking to the House Election Law Committee Thursday, the prime sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment, Rep. Joshua Adjutant, D-Enfield, said last year the Senate voted 15-9 to kill the cannabis legalization bill that passed the House by a wide margin.
He said over the years the Senate has killed legalization bills passed by the House and with wide public support.
For issues with broad bipartisan support, Adjutant said, it would be good to have a process to allow voters to decide.
Under CACR 17, 5 percent of the registered voters in the state could petition to place a question on the ballot.
The secretary of state would be required to place the question on the general election ballot, provided the signatures were gathered in a 90-day period and petitioners authenticated as state voters.
The question would become law within a year if approved by a majority of voters, and the state “may establish a process to ensure the intent of the question is carried out.”
Adjutant said he tried to strike a balance between restrictive and reasonable.
“I did not want to set the bar so high it is unattainable, or so low there would be a lot of issues on the ballot,” he told the committee.
He noted that California ballot initiative requires 12 percent of the previous general election’s vote count to place items on the ballot, while Adjutant said he believes 5 percent of all voters is more reasonable and would not fluctuate from year to year.
He said he envisions a process like the Office of Legislative Services to ensure the ballot reflects the petitioners’ intent.
“I am not married to the guardrails,” he said. “If folks think an amendment is necessary, I’m fine with that.”
Adjutant said the goal is an easier process of allowing widely supported issues to become law.
But several committee members questioned why such a process is needed when each House member represents only 3,000 voters.
Committee member Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, R-Derry, asked why the referendum process is necessary when it is so easy to contact your representative if someone wants a new law or to change one.
Adjutant said in the partisan atmosphere today, party politics may make popular issues difficult to address through the legislature and again referred to the legalization of marijuana, which is supported by 70 percent of the public.
Committee member Ross Berry, R-Manchester, pressed the proposed amendment’s co-sponsor Rep. Ellen Read, I-Newmarket, why the referendum did not go against the founding fathers’ idea of a complicated government system designed not to pass things unless they are very important.
The system was designed so legislators could dig into an issue and then make the best decision, which may not be the case with a referendum initiative, Berry said.
Read said the proposal does not overturn the system as the legislature would still determine most issues. She noted referendums generally are not technical, but more philosophical like marijuana or gay marriage.
The danger of having people not be educated and vote poorly is no different than not being educated about candidates and electing some poor choices., she noted.
The current system allows 50 percent plus one to elect a tyrant into office, Read said.
Others were concerned too many issues could clutter up the general election ballot, but Adjutant said he doubted there would be that many issues at one time. An amendment could limit the referendum questions to the first three that qualify, he noted.
Other committee members wondered what would stop the legislature from coming in the next year and overturning the referendum’s action.
Both Adjutant and Read said that would be flying in the face of what voters want and would be a bad political strategy.
No one besides the sponsors testified for or against the proposed constitutional amendment.
A proposed constitutional amendment needs a 60 percent majority to pass the House and be sent to the Senate. The Senate also needs to approve it by a 60 percent majority to place the issue on the next general election ballot.
Once on the ballot, to change the constitution requires a two-thirds majority of those voting in the general election.
The committee did not not make an immediate recommendation on the proposed constitutional amendment.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.