The peril of a state government that's too accommodating.
Last year Manchester State Representative Barbara Shaw took a constituent call. What happened next is a classic New Hampshire tale of how the state makes law.
The caller erected a partial privacy fence at his camp near Newfound Lake in Bristol. As construction began he notified the town. The town's fire and police departments inspected the fence. He needed a permit because his fence was six feet tall and an old state law establishes that anything over five feet is a "spite fence." Sure enough, the neighboring camp took it as spite, got suspicious and is suing. Good fences don't make good neighbors, at least not in Bristol.
Shaw listened intently, took notes and after winning re-election filed seven bills in Concord including House Bill 333: "Relative to fences as private nuisances." The bill upped the height limit for privacy fences to six feet, making the lawsuit moot if passed.
There was a public hearing. There was discussion. Then by a vote of 17-0 the bill was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee and died.
In the Granite State, residents often feel empowered to call one of the 400 state representatives when they have a problem. It happens in other states. What doesn't happen in every state or even in a full-time Congress is that every bill gets a hearing and a vote. In theory, it is a good government policy. In practice, it clogs up a part-time system run by volunteers who have more pressing priorities.
Specifically, the state faces major budget problems. The Legislature must find a way to cope with a $150 million budget hole for the fiscal year ending in June and solve another $550 million budget gap going forward. Gov. John Lynch wants to lay off 300 state workers, leave another 400 positions at Health and Human Services unfilled, close a Laconia prison, raise tolls, increase taxes on cigarettes, hotel rooms, meals out, vehicle registration fees and take money from the Rainy Day Fund. There is also vigorous conversation about gambling.
This same year there were votes regarding whether the state should secede from the union (HCR 6), decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana (HB 555), how beaver dams are destroyed or built (SB 124) and how snapping turtles can be adopted (SB 549). There was august legislation from Sen. Sheila Roberge (R-Bedford) declaring the Chinook the state dog. (Legislation to adopt a house cat was denied before it was filed. Seriously.) During three days in March, 250 such bills were voted on by the full House.
Here are two ideas that would change the Statehouse for the better.
Give more power to leadership. State law says that every bill, like the one of fences, gets a public hearing and a vote in committee. We should give chairman the ability to not bring up bills that are obviously non-starters.
Shorten sessions. The Legislature meets for six months every year and members get paid just $100 for their service. Historically, sessions lasted just a few months each year and it was a true citizen legislature. Now it is more of a "leisure legislature," i.e. members are not like you and me. They are generally college students, retired or independently wealthy with time on their hands. Long sessions only mean big decisions get delayed, legislation isn't focused and true leaders and talent are left on the sidelines - or leave after a term or two.
Meanwhile, that privacy fence in Bristol remains under construction. NH
This article appears in the May 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine