Bill Would Change How Budgets Are Approved During N.H. Town Meetings

Mar 9, 2015

    

Town Meeting is Tuesday for many communities around the state, and one of the big decisions for voters will be to approve their town’s operating budget.

A bill filed in the state legislature this session would change how those budgets are approved during Town Meeting.

Republican State Senator Nancy Stiles is the bill’s prime sponsor.

She joins Morning Edition to talk about her proposal.

Can you explain how budgets are crafted currently under the SB2 Town Meeting format? It can be a pretty complicated process.

It is. Your governing body presents it to the budget committee and the budget committee presents it to the public. In an SB2 town, it goes to the first deliberative session, which is where any changes can be made to the budget process. So depending on the number of people that are there, they can increase or decrease the budget to their choosing. Then the budget goes forward that way.

The bill that I have introduced I introduced on behalf of one of my budget committee members in the local cooperative school district who was tired of seeing a few people show up at the first deliberative session and making drastic changes to the budget. The bill says those changes can be made at the first deliberative session, but then they are placed on the warrant under the proposed budget for the public to vote on. So if one increases or decreases, the public gets to vote on that and those don’t pass unless the proposed budget passes because there would be no implementation on the default budget.

State Sen. Nancy Stiles
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

It seems the very essence of Town Meeting is that direct citizen involvement. Why change that?

In the SB2 Town Meeting situation, which really does provide the opportunity for more people to vote, we don’t see that many people attending the first deliberative session. Lifestyles have changed drastically for some of our young families, they’re busy with soccer and baseball and all kinds of things, so they don’t take the time to attend the deliberative session where all the action takes place.

There’s already very low participation at these deliberative sessions. What about the concern that this could even further reduce that participation?

I suppose it could, but right now the participation is not good. In my community, we have 5,000 voters and at the beginning of the first deliberative session this year, there were maybe 100 voters there. And by midday, there were 20.

So this bill would really change the essence of the SB2 Town Meeting?

It would change the essence of it, but it would still give the opportunity for people who have the interest to show up at the first deliberative session to make any changes that they wanted and those would go on to the warrant. The voting public would then have the chance to voice their opinion.

What’s next for this bill and when do you see it going into effect?

We still have to have the Senate hearing, then it will go to the Senate floor, then go to the House for the same process. This would not go into effect until 2016.

What are you hearing in terms of support?

I think there’s a lot of interest because there have been issues with the SB2 process simply because of the low attendance at the first deliberative session.