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Sunday, February 27, 2000

Bill: Voters could skip 'tedious' meetings

By Rebecca Mahoney
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- New Hampshire voters are grappling with how much money to spend on bond issues and whether or not to adopt ballot voting at this year's town and school district meetings.

Many towns are debating Senate Bill 2, a new form of voting that allows voters to cast ballots rather than attend traditional town and school district meetings. This year, a handful of towns, including Epping, Hollis, Mont Vernon and Pittsfield will vote on whether to adopt the SB2 system, while other towns -- Alton and Wolfeboro included -- hope to go back to their traditional town meetings.

"Town meeting has been in existence for 350 years. It's been the basis of how democracy grew in this country. It's pure democracy and we're anxious to get it back," said Margie Blodget, 75, who, along with her husband, Todd, 82, has spearheaded Wolfeboro's effort to get rid of SB2 voting.

Forty-five towns and 55 school districts have adopted Senate Bill 2 since the state approved it in 1995.

Detractors of the new system say it encourages more people to vote with less information. But supporters say it puts an end to the long and often tedious traditional meetings.

"There's no more acrimony, bitterness, name-calling, booing or hissing," said Roy Stewart, past chairman and legislative director of Granite State Taxpayers Association, the organization largely credited with the new system's success.

However, others fear that the growth of the SB2 system means towns and school districts are less likely to pass bond issues. Bonds usually are issued for expensive building projects or purchases, mostly for school construction.

Although many bond issues have been defeated in recent years, dozens of towns and districts, including Hudson, Merrimack and Oyster River, hope this year they will pass.

"I think we have a circumstance where we have a real pent-up need," said Mark Joyce, director of the New Hampshire School Administrator's Association, who added that schools have become overcrowded and run down because so many bond issues have been defeated.

A study released Feb. 15 by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies shows towns using the new voting system are less likely to approve bonds for capital projects.

But recent changes to the town ballot law could make a difference. In 1999, changes to the town ballot law lowered the majority needed for bond issues from two-thirds to three-fifths, making it easier for many issues to pass.

One major issue affecting this year's town and school district meetings, said Mr. Joyce, is the controversial state property tax. The tax, a temporary solution to fund public education, requires 53 wealthy communities to pay higher school taxes and send the extra money to the state for redistribution to poorer communities.

Last year towns did not know how much money they'd be receiving until June, so when they got the extra money they used it lower their property tax rates. This the first year the extra money can be applied directly to school budgets.

"It will be a real measuring point: Will communities rise to the challenge and spend more money on public schools this March, or will they keep that money as tax reduction only?" Mr. Joyce said.

The question of how education will be funded in the future will influence voters, said Dennis Murphy, lobbyist for the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state's largest teachers union.

"The fact that the Legislature declined to find a long-term solution has created an uncertainty. It will make people wary of voting for expenditures, particularly long-term commitments," Mr. Murphy said.

Other issues facing voters this year include approval of teacher contracts and town office construction and renovations.

Also, many communities are asking voters to support resolutions that would help support the preservation of natural, cultural and historical landmarks.

All towns using Senate Bill 2 are scheduled to vote March 14.

Traditional meeting districts and towns have to hold their meetings between March 1 and 25.

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