Forum exposes key differences
The candidates for governor split yesterday on the two constitutional amendments that will go before New Hampshire voters Nov. 6 for ratification, with Republican Ovide Lamontagne supporting both and Democrat Maggie Hassan opposed to both.
One of the proposed amendments would prohibit any future state income tax. The other would give the New Hampshire Legislature the final say over rules for state courts, sharing a power now reserved for the state Supreme Court. Each amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote to become part of the state Constitution.
Both Hassan, a lawyer and former state senator from Exeter, and Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney and former chairman of the state Board of Education, say they oppose an income tax and would veto one if elected governor. During a debate yesterday at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, Lamontagne said he's an "absolute yes" on the amendment to ban an income tax.
But Hassan said the fact that she opposes such a tax shouldn't keep future generations from deciding for themselves.
"I think we should amend the Constitution only in very narrow circumstances, and we certainly don't need to make fiscal policy in our Constitution," she said.
On the courts amendment, Lamontagne said that if the judicial branch is "going to promulgate rules and regulations that have
the force and effect of law, when the Legislature has the ultimate authority over what kind of judicial system we have, I don't think there's anything wrong with having the Legislature review those rules as they do with the executive branch."
Hassan said she opposes that amendment as a threat to the constitutional separation of powers.
"I think it's inappropriate for the Legislature to interfere with our court system," she said.
Hassan and Lamontagne also disagreed yesterday on the state retirement system for public employees. Lamontagne said he supports moving toward a defined-contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), for new workers, instead of the current defined-benefit pension plan.
Hassan countered that studies say making that change could cost the state an additional $1 billion.
A special House committee is currently studying the issue.
"It's not a good idea," she said.
But Lamontagne said the retirement system, and its multibillion-dollar unfunded liability, have to be addressed.
"Just because a subject or an issue is tough doesn't mean you don't deal with it. In fact, that's exactly why I'm running for governor," Lamontagne said.
The candidates aired sharp disagreements on other subjects as well, including gay marriage - Hassan supports the 2009 law that legalized it in New Hampshire; Lamontagne wants to repeal it but supports civil unions and wants to preserve existing same-sex marriages - and abortion.
Hassan is pro-choice. Lamontagne is pro-life but said yesterday, as he has at other debates, that he'd have no say over the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that overturned state abortion bans if he were elected to replace retiring Democratic Gov. John Lynch.
"The governor of the state of New Hampshire is the weakest governor in the country, and I can't reverse Roe vs. Wade," he said. "Those laws aren't going to change."
Hassan called that disingenuous, since the governor can sign or veto bills passed by the Legislature that would restrict access to abortion and service providers like Planned Parenthood. One potential bill already filed for the next legislative session, for example, would bar abortions if a fetus's heartbeat can be detected.
"I don't think Ovide is being straightforward with you about this at all," Hassan said, adding, "Ovide will have the power to sign or veto legislation that comes to his desk. And the question is, if he gets one like that one that's already filed, that would essentially make it impossible for women to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, will he veto it? I think the answer is, 'No.' "
Lamontagne called Hassan's position on abortion extreme, since she opposes the parental-notification law enacted last year over Lynch's veto. But, he said, the topic shouldn't even be on the table for debate.
"I'm disappointed that Maggie and her supporters continue to raise an issue which is not central to this election," Lamontagne said. "This election is about jobs, the economy and reforming state government to bring us into a new era of prosperity. My opponent and her supporters want to talk about issues that are not central to the people of New Hampshire."
Libertarian John Babiarz of Grafton is also on the ballot for governor but didn't participate in yesterday's debate, part of the Manchester synagogue's traditional pre-election candidates' breakfast.
Yesterday marked the 10th debate for the gubernatorial candidates since the Sept. 11 primary. Hassan and Lamontagne will participate in two more debates ahead of the election, Oct. 30 in North Conway and Nov. 1 at St. Anselm College. The latter debate will be televised live on WMUR.
Romney, Obama, Shea-Porter
Also speaking at the Reform Jewish synagogue yesterday were surrogates for the two presidential candidates, Republican Mitt Romney and President Obama, the Democrat.
State Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, speaking for Romney, and Doug Wilson, the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, speaking for Obama, sparred over foreign and domestic policy.
Both men told the temple audience that their candidate would be a good friend to Israel.
"I guess I would agree with (Israeli Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) Ehud Barak, who said this administration's probably been the best friend of Israel when it comes to security of any administration," Wilson said.
Bradley countered: "Gov. Romney has made it very clear that he will be Israel's strongest friend. In fact, his first foreign trip, he has promised it will be to Israel."
Carol Shea-Porter, the Democrat running for her old House seat in District 1, also spoke at yesterday's forum. Her opponent, incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, "wasn't able to be here this morning," said George Bruno, the former U.S. ambassador to Belize who moderated the forum. Guinta also missed the forum two years ago when he was challenging Shea-Porter, then the incumbent.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)