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State House Democrats target funding to defend voting law

Monitor staff
Published: 1/13/2020 2:50:26 PM
Modified: 1/13/2020 2:49:40 PM

After years of litigation against two laws they say will disenfranchise voters, New Hampshire Democrats tried a new tact Friday: attacking the purse.

In an unusual move, Democrats on the Fiscal Committee voted Friday to cut $477,000 from the Department of Justice’s litigation budget, arguing that the state should stop funding its ongoing defense of Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 1264.

Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, a Democratic representative from Concord, said in a statement that the committee “voted to cease funding for two cases which put the voting rights of Granite Staters in jeopardy.”

The two laws added obligations for voters at the polls and were passed with Republican support. But they’ve sparked lawsuits from the state Democratic Party and other groups, who argue that they pose an undue burden on voting.

On Friday, the Department of Justice requested $777,000 for its litigation fund from the Fiscal Committee, the powerful panel of representatives and senators that approves state expenditures. But the Democratic majority voted to cut that request by $477,000, leaving $300,000 left over.

That $477,000, Democrats noted, is close to the $497,000 that the Department estimates it will spend through the end of Fiscal Year 2020 on the SB 4 and HB 1264 litigation.

The $300,000 left over should allow the Department to fund its other obligations, including litigation defending the state’s clean water laws and homicide prosecutions, Democrats argued.

“The first thing we did today as a Fiscal Committee for the Department of Justice was ensure they had the funds to prosecute criminal cases and other cases of the utmost importance to Granite Staters,” Wallner said.

But Republicans were apoplectic.

“For the first time in recent memory, the Department of Justice will not have the necessary funds to prosecute murders and other violent crimes, litigate clean water lawsuits, or comply with the State’s obligations under the community mental health agreement,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in a statement. “Once again the Democrats must now explain why they are standing in the way of the administration of justice.”

In an interview Friday evening, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald agreed.

“These funds are used to help us prosecute crimes, to help us protect consumers, and to help defend lawsuits that are brought against the state,” he said. “It is my constitutional duty, and the duty of every other attorney in this office, when it comes to defending laws in this state, to defend them.”

How the $477,000 cut is absorbed by the Department of Justice is up to the department. While Democrats on Fiscal Committee suggested the cuts should be targeted to the voting lawsuits, it did not set any obligations to do so.

That means the Department could feasibly apply the cut to areas of its budget – or to all simultaneously.

MacDonald said that the department would continue to defend the voting laws.The Justice Department had an obligation to defend every law passed by the Legislature, he argued.

“It is our solemn obligation to defend a duly enacted legislation in the state of New Hampshire,” he said. “There is no discretion about that duty. And we do not get to pick.”

MacDonald said that the Department was still evaluating its next options.

The cuts could complicate the progression of the Departments’ defense of the laws. Senate Bill 3 added new documentation requirements to prove voters are domiciled in their towns; House Bill 1264 made voting an effective act of residency, which brings along car registration fees. The former is presently being decided in the Hillsborough Superior Court; the latter has been passed to the state Supreme Court by the U.S. District Court in Concord.

Wallner, for her part, urged the Department to return to the Fiscal Committee for more money if it needed it in other areas.

” The Department of Justice understands they can always come back to the fiscal committee for funding for criminal litigation and other litigation that will prevent harm for New Hampshire citizens, and we will fund those requests,” she said.

But to Chuck Morse, the ranking Republican senator on the Committee, it was an “unprecedented” move against a state agency.

“By taking this reckless step, the Democrats have undermined the Department of Justice’s ability to perform their constitutional duties,” Morse said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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