Cook On Concord: A passing and a pass at public campaign funding

Among the New Hampshire heroes not known generally to the public was Charles J. Lawson of New London, N.H., and Naples, Fla.

Chuck Lawson, a longtime summer resident of Springfield and in the last years of his life, New London, was a senior executive at IBM who retired to his adopted state with his wife Joan and became immersed in civic activities here.

As a trustee of Colby-Sawyer College, Chuck Lawson rose to become chair of the board. His wisdom and sense helped that institution change from a single-sex to co-ed college, rebuild its finances and establish a firm endowment and development program. Indeed, his charitable remainder uni-trust was the “poster child” gift that allowed others to see how such charitable gifts can benefit the donor during his lifetime, a surviving spouse and then become part of the endowment fund of the recipient institution, benefiting everyone in the process.

Later, Lawson was among a group of residents and trustees who noticed serious issues at New London Hospital, joined together to help save it, put it on a new track, change its affiliation to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Alliance and establish it as a solid institution serving west central New Hampshire.

Chuck Lawson died this spring in his late 80s, having served business, family and community well. A memorial service in his honor will note his accomplishments, but those whom he served feel the loss already.

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The Legislature passed an interesting piece of legislation during its last session. House Bill 794 which became Chapter 55 of the Laws of 2008 is “an act establishing a commission to study the feasibility of public funding of state election campaigns.”

The bill’s chief sponsor was Portsmouth Democratic Rep. Jim Splaine, who has had a longtime interest in election law and campaign purity.

The members of the commission have been appointed and begin their work this month. While I do not recall being an advocate of public election campaign financing on the state level, I was deemed worthy by Governor Lynch, who appointed me to the commission. Analyzing the potential for campaign reform in New Hampshire with public financing should be an interesting assignment.

The assignment will be especially interesting, since another provision of the law says the commission “shall examine potential revenue sources for public funding of state election campaigns and develop a recommendation to the general court for a plan to fund state election campaigns in a sustainable manner.” The commission can’t consider general fund revenue, but may consider voluntary contributions, in-kind donations of services, “and other means to generate revenue from public and private source.”

The commission also may “consider the legislative framework for a system of public funding of state election campaigns developed by the election law committee of the house of representatives, which the election law committee shall file with the secretary of state within 30 days of the effective date of this section.”

While the name of the commission indicates it is to study the “feasibility” of public funding, the quoted section seems to indicate that those who drafted the law believe a plan is possible, desirable and the commission should be able to do it.

The commission is to file its report by December, which means a lot of work has to be done this fall.

Citizens with opinions on this subject should contact the members with their ideas.

Already, the New Hampshire Union Leader has editorialized that public funding is a violation of free speech. That point of view certainly is part of the debate, given decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that equate campaign spending by candidates as speech protected by the First Amendment. The Union Leader also called the two Republicans named “token Republicans” (including this writer). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say!

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association.