Legislature on Leave
As things start cooking in the State House kitchen, fewer can take the heat
Illustration by Peter Noonan
Those who get elected to New Hampshire's State House this November will shape decades with their decisions. They must figure out how to implement - or not - the new federal health care law. They will oversee a budget that somehow must be balanced even though new taxes seem to be off the table and state spending has been picked to the bone. There are also real problems when it comes to the state's mental health system, prisons and how to fund schools.
It's a time for leadership, but the leaders are walking away. In 2012 one-third of our state senators have announced they aren't returning to Concord. All offer different reasons: Berlin Republican John Gallus thinks after a decade of service it is time for new blood; Manchester Republican Tom DeBlois is running for higher office, Upper Valley Democrat Matt Houde wants to focus on his new job and a new bride. That's good thinking for Houde since Strafford Republican Jim Forsythe said he isn't running again partly because the demanding job ended his marriage. The bottom line is it's the largest number of senators not seeking re-election since at least 1978.
All are basically saying the same thing: Another term in office simply isn't worth it. Some might retire thinking they have held the seat long enough and it is time for someone new, however, that doesn't explain why there are five people who are walking away after serving a single term.
The issue here is the system. Over the years New Hampshire has established the purest incarnation of a citizen government you will see anywhere in the country.
A New Hampshire State Senator only makes $100 a year while working 50 to 60 hours a week, so only a very few wealthy, small business owners, lawyers, real estate agents or the retired can afford to run. And even among that subgroup only the most passionate or ego-driven are interested in raising $100,000 for each election and sticking around for another go.
Consider that New Hampshire has the fourth smallest Senate in the country. Alaska is the smallest with just 20 members, while Nevada and Delaware each have 21. Alaska and Delaware pay their senators around their respective household median incomes. Nevada pays their senators more per day than a New Hampshire senator makes all year.
Instead of asking why eight of the 24 sitting senators aren't seeking re-election maybe we should be asking why the other 16 are bothering. Until the 1970s most senators only served a term or two before running for another office or returning back to their lives. Our State Senate started meeting every two years in 1879, but it wasn't until 1967 when a Senate President was re-elected to another term - Stewart Lamprey of Moultonborough.
Frugalness is a Granite State way of life but there is something to be said for paying state lawmakers like other states do. More people could run for the job and then keep it long enough to gain expertise and build coalitions. Not paying them makes it only easier to walk away.