How is SB2 changing your town?
By: Bob Cassasa
This issue has been updated by LFDA editors.
Adopted in 1995, pursuant to RSA 40:13 any town, school district or cooperative school district that raises and appropriates funds at an annual meeting can adopt a process whereby all warrant articles are given their final vote by official ballot.
If this approach is adopted, the annual town meeting will consist of two sessions:
At the first session – the deliberative session – (often held in late January/early February) participants have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and possibly amend the articles on the warrant. The purpose of the first session is to determine the wording of the articles, the final form of ballot questions. While the wording of some warrant articles may not be amended (e.g. zoning articles) the general rule is that all other warrant articles are subject to amendment. For example, an appropriation article could be amended down from $250,000.00 to $0. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that deleting all language from a warrant article except the words “To see…” was permissible (Grant v. Barrington 156 NH 807 (2008)).
Typically held the second Tuesday in March, the second session consists of the election of town/school officers (Selectmen, School Board) and final action on all articles as they emerged from the deliberative session. The voting is conducted by written ballot without further discussion, debate or amendment. The voter has the power to say “yes” or “no” to what the first session did, but not to alter it.
The most significant vote at this session relates to the proposed town budget, which has been prepared by the town’s governing body and may or may not have been amended at the first session. The voters must choose between this proposed budget and a “default” budget which is determined by a formula and is automatically enacted if the proposed budget fails to receive a majority vote.
The “default budget” is defined by RSA 40: 13 IX (b), as follows: Default budget as used in this subdivision means the amount of the same appropriations as contained in the operating budget authorized for the previous year, reduced and increased, as the case may be, by debt service, contracts, and other obligations previously incurred or mandated by law, and reduced by one-time expenditures contained in the operating budget. For the purposes of this paragraph, one-time expenditures shall be appropriations not likely to recur in the succeeding budget, as determined by the governing body, unless the provisions of RSA 40:14-b are adopted, of the local political subdivision.”
NH Towns Still Split On SB2
A number of communities have repealed or tried to repeal SB2 since the time they adopted it. Here's a list from the state Department of Revenue Administration of towns that adopted SB2 and whether they've repealed it.
Supporters of SB2 argue that it is more convenient for voters to attend the polls than to schedule attendance at a long town meeting. In a statement David Cedarholm, founder of the Lee Citizens Alliance, said "Town Meeting should not require a survivor level of energy that requires participants to ‘outwit, outplay, and outlast’ in order to participate in the basic democratic process."
Opponents of SB2 counter that without participating in a meeting, most voters are ignorant about the details of the budget that appears on the ballot. Similarly, low attendance at deliberative sessions can allow small groups to "hijack" the final budget.
Sen. Nancy Stiles sponsored SB 242, which establishes a committee to study methods of adopting a budget in towns that have adopted official ballot voting under SB2. Gov. Hassan signed that bill in June.
In 2014 Sen. Peggy Gilmour (D-Hollis) sponsored SB 301, a bill that would allow towns to put a two-year ban on petitions to either adopt or repeal SB2 procedures, provided that such a petition has failed two years in a row. The Senate killed that bill in February 2014.
Some attempts were launched to amend, or undercut, SB2 in the 2013 legislative session. Chief among them was HB 280, which limited changes to petitioned warrant articles during the deliberative session in SB2 towns. The House killed that bill on Feb. 20, 2013.
Another 2013 bill, HB 460, would allow a town's default budget to be increased by no more than 10 percent at town's deliberative session. Currently, the budget, once approved by voters, cannot be amended. HB 460 died in the House.