Editorial: Conservation funding must be restored
Some very worthy local projects, including the restoration of Dunbarton’s town hall in time for the community’s 250th anniversary, failed to make the cut for funding from the state Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which is itself on life support. Other also-rans included grants to speed the restoration of Epsom’s picturesque meeting house; rescuing Hillsboro’s magnificent Fuller Library, the mansion that was once home to New Hampshire governor John B. Smith; and restoring the historic clock overlooking Suncook’s Main Street. This is no way to support New Hampshire’s history, preserve a legacy for its children or protect the economy of a tourist state. The next governor and Legislature should restore full funding to LCHIP, one of the most popular programs in state history.
Repeated raids on the program’s allegedly dedicated fund left it with only enough money to keep the office lights on. The program was only able to award the grants it recently did because past recipients returned a half-million dollars they didn’t use. Had they returned the money sooner, we’re convinced, lawmakers would have stolen it too. The 18 communities that did receive grants received only a fraction of the money they requested, and hundreds of worthy grant proposals have gone unfilled. That’s pound-foolish, since every state dollar given to LCHIP has been multiplied at least five times by local and federal funds and private contributions.
The program, founded in 2000 with bipartisan support and back slaps all around, accomplished a lot until times got tough and lawmakers, lacking the courage to confront the state’s structural deficit, turned covetous eyes on LCHIP’s small pool of money. The program leveraged state money so successfully that it succeeded in preserving more than a quarter-million acres and 126 historic buildings.
It’s past time for the House, Senate and governor to have an honest, public discussion of the use of dedicated funds and the responsibility lawmakers owe the citizens who pay into them. LCHIP’s fund was not the only one raided. Money from the gas tax, which in New Hampshire is constitutionally dedicated to highway spending, has for years been diverted for purposes tangentially related to highways. Funds from fees levied on boaters and sportsmen to increase access to the state’s lakes and ponds has been misappropriated by lawmakers. So has money for motorcycle training and safety and for tobacco cessation programs. Lawmakers also raided the energy conservation fund created by New Hampshire’s participation in the regional compact to reduce greenhouse gases. That’s a breach of faith that, unless repaired, should make taxpayers unwilling to swallow future assurances about how their money will be used.
LCHIP’s primary source of revenue is a $25 surcharge on the recording of deeds and mortgages that lawmakers approved in 2007. The fee, championed by conservative Republican Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare, raised about $6 million per year for the program. The collapse of the real estate market cut into that source of revenue, but the fee still raised a considerable sum. Had lawmakers not swiped the money, LCHIP could have taken advantage of low construction and real estate costs to protect and restore much of what makes New Hampshire a great place to live. That opportunity was lost.
No set of lawmakers has succeeded in building a lockbox strong enough to resist the picks of their hungry successors. The best lockbox we’ve been able to come up with is the ballot box. If a governor, senator or representative diverts money raised for one purpose to another use, voters should call them on it. If they don’t like the answer they get, they should turn them out of office.