The retired, the rich, students - who else could work for $100?The number one question around the state capital this month is: Who are all of these people? When the two-year legislative session kicks off this month, a little less than half of the third largest legislature in the world will be brand new.Lobbyists, journalists, even the governor are curious about these people's positions and intentions. They have questions like: How much do they want to cut the budget? Will they repeal the state's same sex marriage law? Will the largest Republican majorities in state history collaborate with the state's soon-to-be-longest-serving governor in modern state history, who happens to be a Democrat?But as this two-year legislative session begins there is a much more fundamental question to ask: Are these people really the best and brightest the state has to offer? The answer: Of course they aren't.But in New Hampshire the goal isn't to recruit the best policy makers. The goal is to have a citizen government with limited power. But doesn't experience in making law and knowing the unintended consequences of policy count for something?The fact that we have a state representative for every 3,000 people and that they are only paid $100 (plus mileage, free tolls and free parking in Concord!) for hours upon hours of time is quaint, but it limits who would actually seek such a job and limits how long they would serve.Generally speaking, members of the New Hampshire Legislature fall into one of three categories: retired, student, rich small business person or lawyer. While there are a lot of state residents who fall into those categories it is hardly representative sample. For example, a person who works a regular job at a regular company really has no way they can be involved unless they have an extremely sympathetic employer. And the state Senate, which has evolved into a full-time job, is totally out of the question for most residents.It is considered very high turnover when just five percent of members in the U.S. Congress decide not to run again.
In New Hampshire we begin the conversation knowing at least 33 percent will not be back the next session.Such turnover means the Legislature has to constantly reinvent the wheel of best practices and policy ideas and of casting the same votes on issues over and over again. This turnover might provide the best example of a citizen government, but it is not the best example in efficiency or readiness to tackle complicated problems.The big winners in this system are lobbyists and the clients who hire them. In most states it is hard for lobbyists to have private one-on-one time with a representative or state senator. Here, lobbyists have vast influence. There are hundreds of new members who are just learning where the bathrooms are. Most members don't have an office. They don't have staff. They come to Concord maybe two days a week, which is less than part time, and they have to vote on roughly 2,000 bills that there is no way they can be fully up to speed on.When you sit in the House gallery and look down on a 400-person citizen legislature making a $100 a year, there is a romance to it all. But you get what you pay for. NH
This article appears in the January 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine