Think Small

New Hampshire has perfected the art of penny-pinching.

Recently New Hampshire was ranked as the least politically corrupt state in the nation. It is a nice distinction to have, but it also begs the question as to why.

We can talk about how wholesome we are, but the real answer is that New Hampshire taxes less and spends less than most states. Without anything being taxed or government contracts to give out there is little incentive to hire a lobbyist or for a public official to be bribed.

With the stakes at play so low it also means that the state has little ability to do big things. If the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto ever gets old we can just replace it with 
“Think Small.”

Even with a recession, two wars and a new administration, political leaders elsewhere in the country have been doing big things. In Washington, D.C., leaders passed a huge health care bill. California tried to build a bullet train project aiming to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours. Washington State will undertake a second “Big Dig”-like project in Seattle. The New York Times said their governor’s ethics reform proposal was “the most ambitious ever suggested.”

Arizona sparked national conversation about their new immigration law.

But locally our Legislature looks more like a town council. There is a lot of debate among politicians about how to spend revenue that is puny when compared to the rest of the country. In fact, it is probably downright charming to governors elsewhere that a major point of Gov. John Lynch’s state of the state address this year was to add a million dollars to the state’s job retraining efforts, effectively doubling that program’s budget. This was his response to the recession.

Along with no income stream that’s broad-based — like an income or sales tax — going to state coffers, there is also the fact the state’s budget is kept at, as Rep. Margie Smith, the House finance chair, calls it, at a “structural deficit.” This means that the Legislature approves projects that it has no ability to pay for when you add up the collective price tag.

So before anyone takes a look at the next budget and the liabilities, there is no way state revenues can pay for them all. The discussion begins with where do we cut versus what can we grow or what can we sustain.

Earlier this summer the longest-serving state senator announced she wasn’t seeking re-election. Sen. Sheila Roberge, a Bedford Republican, called it quits after a career which began five governors ago and when Ronald Reagan was mid-way through his presidency.

On the day she announced her retirement she was asked for her long-view take on what has changed in New Hampshire politics during the 26 years she served.

“Oh, not a lot has changed actually. We still debate the same exact things, taxes and spending, that we always have,” she said. “The people change, but it is the same debate year after year.”

One of the things that didn’t change during those years: her $100 annual salary as a Senator.

There is Yankee Frugal and then there is downright cheap. If you were to go on a first date with the state of New Hampshire he wouldn’t just request that you order the cheapest thing on the menu, you’d be ordering fast food. And walking there. NH

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