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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: N.H.’s push-poll law could get bipartisan overhaul

There’s a bipartisan effort under way in the state Senate to overhaul New Hampshire’s ban on “push polls” – a law that national pollsters have complained is written so broadly that it can discourage legitimate political surveys.

A bill introduced by Democratic Sen. David Pierce of Etna and cosponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, would rewrite the 1998 law to create a broad exemption for “bona fide survey and opinion research” and tighten the definition of a push poll, which are telephone calls posing as surveys that actually just convey negative information about a candidate.

“It’s not a partisan issue at all,” Pierce said. “We believe that the push-polling statute is too ambiguous, that polling firms are unsure of what they can and cannot do . . . and so

the push-poll bill tries to draw some bright-line rules as to what is a push poll and what is not.”

The bill is scheduled to go before the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee Wednesday. It comes after national polling organizations raised complaints last year against New Hampshire’s law, and amid an ongoing civil case against former congressman Charlie Bass over an alleged push poll during the 2010 campaign.

“Both parties have had problems with the lack of clarity on what constitutes push polling. . . . There’s a concern by myself and Sen. Pierce that our polling laws are confusing to the point where it’s hard for national pollsters to comply,” Bradley said.

Under New Hampshire law, a push poll is a telephone call that asks “questions related to opposing candidates for public office which state, imply, or convey information about the candidates character, status, or political stance or record” and is also conducted in a way “likely to be construed by the voter to be a survey or poll to gather statistical data for entities or organizations which are acting independent of any particular political party, candidate, or interest group.”

That’s too broad a definition, according to two national groups, the Marketing Research Association and the American Association of Political Consultants, who say in a position paper that New Hampshire’s law “is written so broadly as to incorporate bona fide survey and opinion research practices.”

Last year, Bass’s campaign committee was hit with a civil complaint by Attorney General Mike Delaney, who alleged the Republican had done a push poll during the 2010 campaign to 400 households.

The case, initially in Merrimack County Superior Court, was moved to federal court, then bounced back to the state court. Bass’s lawyer, fellow ex-congressman Chuck Douglas, has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, with more legal filings due in the case May 8.

Douglas claims the state law can’t apply to candidates for federal office, since they’re governed by federal law. And the Federal Election Commission appears to back him up, having issued an advisory opinion last year that state push-poll law is pre-empted by federal rules when it comes to federal candidates.

The MRA and AAPC have also intervened in the Bass case, filing a brief in support of the ex-congressman and more generally complaining, in a filing, that Delaney’s action in pursuing civil penalties “poses a risk of a chilling effect on the conduct of telephone polling in New Hampshire.”

Delaney’s office, for its part, has objected to Douglas’s motion to dismiss the case.

Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said it’s not unusual for legitimate polls to ask about negative information on a candidate to gauge responses. Message testing, he said, isn’t the same as a push poll, which asks just a few questions and has no intention of gathering data.

Pierce’s bill would define a push poll, in part, as a survey lasting less than two minutes and administered to more than 2,000 people.

That would have let Bass off the hook, since Delaney alleged his survey only went to 400 people. And it makes sense, Smith said, since a legitimate survey can achieve a respectable margin of error with a far smaller sample than 2,000.

Without a fix to the law, Pierce said, national pollsters might simply pull out of the state. And that’s be bad news, he said, with a wide-open presidential election coming up in 2016.

“The New Hampshire primary, we think, is put at risk,” Pierce said.

Revenue guesstimating

The House Ways and Means Committee put the finishing touches last week on its revenue estimates.

Or rather, the panel’s Democrats did. The estimates were adopted on a 11-7 vote along party lines.

Republicans, led by Deputy Minority Leader David Hess of Hooksett, objected as earlier estimates were revised up in the areas of business tax revenue, meals-and-rooms tax revenue and revenue from the real estate transfer tax.

For the real-estate numbers, the panel’s Democrats cited data including strong February revenue. In the other two cases, they cited economic-growth projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“You guys got the votes,” Hess said at one point, “but I don’t see it.”

It’s “extremely hard” to directly compare the panel’s estimates with the revenue estimates in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget, noted Democratic Rep. Susan Almy of Lebanon, the committee’s chairwoman. The two sets of numbers make different assumptions – for example, Hassan’s revenue numbers include a 20-cent increase in the tobacco tax and $80 million from a casino license, but neither were used in the House calculations.

But in terms of raw numbers, the panel’s estimates assume revenue to the state’s general and education funds will increase 1.6 percent in fiscal 2014 from fiscal 2013, and rise an additional 1.9 percent in fiscal 2015.

That’s somewhat less optimistic than Hassan’s budget, which included a baseline revenue estimate – that is, not including things like casino revenue – of a 2 percent increase in 2014 and a 1.9 percent increase in 2015.

Again, though, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The House numbers, for example, include revenue from the Medicaid enhancement tax, while Hassan’s budget broke those numbers out from the baseline estimate.

Storm cleanup

Speaker Terie Norelli’s decision to cancel last Wednesday’s House session due to a forecasted winter storm put some bills in a bit of a pickle.

Legislation that deals with state spending or revenue typically goes to a second committee – either Finance or Ways and Means – if it passes the House after being heard by a policy committee. That includes pending legislation like Nashua Democratic Rep. David Campbell’s bill to raise the gas tax, which was on the calendar for Wednesday’s session.

And the deadline was Thursday for the initial House vote on those bills.

They can still be taken up when the House meets on Wednesday. The House first needs to suspend its rules, which requires a two-thirds vote – more than the Democrats’ majority in the chamber.

But Minority Leader Gene Chandler said the GOP caucus doesn’t plan to block the vote.

“We’re not going to govern that way,” Chandler said. “We’ll pass or fail something on its merits, not by hook or by crook.”

Democrats to meet

The state Democratic Party will hold its annual meeting Saturday at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

But it might attract a smaller crowd than the hundreds who turned out in January at the state GOP’s annual meeting, where Jennifer Horn was elected chair over Andrew Hemingway.

“We’re hoping people come,” said Chairman Ray Buckley. “Because there’s no contested races, there isn’t a real incentive to show up.”

Still, he said, “We’re hoping for a good crowd.”

Steve Walker, the deputy national political director for the Democratic National Committee, will speak at the meeting, along with 2nd District U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster.

And officers will be elected, though as Buckley noted, there aren’t any contested races. He’s set to be elected to a fourth term as chairman, which he said would tie the record now shared by former chairs Kathy Sullivan and J. Murray Devine.

AG scolding

Three Manchester aldermen – including Patrick Arnold, who’s running for mayor this year – were scolded last week by the attorney general’s office after an election-law investigation.

Arnold, along with fellow Democrats Joyce Craig and Ron Ludwig, sent a letter to voters last year to support Manchester Democrat Kathleen Kelley’s unsuccessful run against Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican.

(Kelley, by the way, is married to Arnold.)

But the three officials didn’t register as an official political committee, and Boutin filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office. In a Feb. 26 letter, Assistant Attorney General Stephen LaBonte ruled that the letter “constituted the organization of a political committee,” though “the three individuals were not aware that their actions constituted the formation of a political committee” and didn’t register as one.

LaBonte told the aldermen to retroactively file papers with the secretary of state’s office by March 15, and Arnold said in an email, “of course we’ll file the requested paperwork.”

Jim and John

John Lynch’s bipartisan streak is still going strong, two months after leaving the governor’s office.

The four-term Democratic governor last week joined the board of directors for Nashua-based Ping4 Inc., a company that provides emergency alerts on smartphones. The company’s chief executive officer: Jim Bender, a Republican who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 (and finished fourth in the GOP primary).

“Gov. Lynch is an executive of extraordinary capability. His unique attributes and extensive corporate and public sector experience will make him a superb director,” Bender said in a statement.

Gay-marriage GOPers

Bass may have lost his seat in Congress last fall to Kuster, but he turned up again last week, joining a pack of New Hampshire Republicans who signed on to support gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court is taking up cases challenging California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage there in 2008, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. One amici curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief was filed by prominent Republicans in support of the effort to overturn Proposition 8.

Bass was on the list, along with a trio of state legislators: Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield, Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton and Rep. Adam Schroadter of Newmarket.

Signed on, too, was Tyler Deaton, secretary of the New Hampshire Young Republicans, and Jake Wagner, chairman of the New Hampshire Federation of College Republicans.

Not to be outdone, Hassan and Delaney announced Thursday that the state government had signed on to briefs in both cases to support marriage for same-sex couples. And U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Kuster and 1st District U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter all signed on to a brief challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. All five are Democrats.

Blue Ear hits NYC

Blue Ear’s fame is continuing to spread.

The earpiece-equipped superhero – modeled on 5-year-old Anthony Smith, grandson of Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro – was created by Marvel last year to help Anthony get over his reluctance to wear a blue hearing aid.

Last week, Anthony was in New York, teaming up with Iron Man to unveil a new poster, “Hearing is Believing,” designed to help other kids embrace their hearing aids.

“Our mantra is what Stan Lee said: With great power there must come great responsibility,” Marvel editor Bill Rosemann told CNN. “Our guys thought, ‘If I have the ability to draw, I am going to use it to help someone like Anthony feel comfortable about his hearing aid.’ ”

The week ahead

The House has a double agenda waiting for it Wednesday, thanks to last week’s canceled session. Among other things, it’ll take up bills to hike the gas tax by 15 cents, legalize industrial hemp and establish a 24-hour waiting period for abortions.

Also meeting Wednesday is the Executive Council.

The Senate is back from vacation and will meet Thursday. Among the items on its agenda: a bill sponsored by all 11 Democratic senators to reinstate the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (the same as the federal minimum wage), which the then-GOP-led Legislature repealed in 2011.

Thursday will also see the first in a series of public hearings being held by the House Finance Committee on the state budget.

It’ll be in Representatives Hall from 4 to 7 p.m.

Additional hearings on the budget are planned March 11 in Whitefield and Nashua, and March 18 in Claremont and Rochester.

Speaker for the House

The House has a new spokesman.

Mario Piscatella was announced last week as Norelli’s new “communications and policy director.” He’s a former Iowa staffer for Chris Dodd’s 2008 presidential campaign with plenty of other Democratic campaign experience.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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