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Editorial: Flood compact makes state’s obligation clear

Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing, especially in politics. Last week, the New Hampshire House was faced with a decision of what to do with $1.1 million the state received from Massachusetts to settle outstanding debts related to the Merrimack River Flood Control Compact.

House members overwhelming decided the state should keep the money. The question is, was that the right thing to do?

To make that determination, you have to start at the beginning.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, New England had a big-time flooding problem, so state legislatures decided to enter into interstate agreements to construct flood-control dams. One such agreement was the Merrimack River Flood Control Compact, which was approved by Congress in 1957.

Under the terms of the compact, New Hampshire and Massachusetts agreed to reimburse 14 New Hampshire communities for tax revenue lost when they contributed thousands of acres to the extensive flood-control system, with the Bay State covering 70 percent and New Hampshire the remaining 30 percent.

For decades, the compact worked well. After that, not so much.

In 1994, Massachusetts made no payment, and only partial payments until 2002. The payments stopped altogether in 2003, except for a one-time payment in 2006 from then-Gov. Mitt Romney, who was feeling generous toward a key primary state as he planned his presidential run. During the years of nonpayment, New Hampshire fulfilled its legal obligation and provided the full payments to the affected communities. But that stopped in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, when New Hampshire covered only 30 percent.

In those two years combined, the communities missed out on about $1 million, which meant the state essentially downshifted the lost tax revenue to the taxpayers in the 14 communities.

Then, in January, New Hampshire reached the aforementioned settlement agreement with Massachusetts for $1.1 million, a fraction of what Massachusetts actually owed under the terms of the compact.

It’s clear from this brief history that the state has a responsibility to hand over the settlement money to the 14 communities. It belongs to the taxpayers, and New Hampshire’s legal obligation under the compact is to pay the communities in full. Reimbursement from Massachusetts is a separate issue – and that is the crucial point that the House seemingly ignored with last week’s vote. Massachusetts may be a deadbeat neighbor (and without offering any reason at all for nonpayment), but that doesn’t change the fact that the communities that gave up so much so many years ago are legally entitled to payment in full from the State of New Hampshire.

When you find a wallet stuffed with money, you’re supposed to look for some identification to determine who it belongs to, then you give it back. And it doesn’t matter how much you need the money. You return it because it’s the right thing to do.

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