The Granite State isn’t eager to serve as a national lab rat.
States, in theory, are supposed to be the “laboratories of democracy.” The challenge of how to solve some of the nation’s biggest problems is supposed to be undertaken by different legislatures or even cities. Some work, some don’t and that’s the point. None of the hypotheses must be perfect, but an attempt to be learned from by other states and eventually the national government.
New York became the first to enact some of the nation’s first labor laws. California leads the way on environmental laws. Nevada has legalized prostitution and gambling. Nebraska experiments with a uni-cameral, non-partisan one-chamber Legislature (meaning they don’t have a House and a Senate). Wisconsin became the first state to enact welfare reform legislation that became the national model by the mid-1990s. Vermont became the first to offer same-sex civil unions. Cleveland has been at the forefront of school voucher experiments. And there is Massachusetts, where under then-Governor Romney the state tried a health care law to ensure coverage for all of its residents, an experiment that served as a model of the new national health care law.
But one state that rarely gets mentioned in this discussion is New Hampshire. We are a state that claims to have fired the first shots of the American Revolution, to have the first state constitution and the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. But when it comes to bold policy experiments for other states to copy all we really have is the lottery. In 1963 Keene State Rep. Larry Pickett finally got his idea of a lottery passed and signed into law as a way of raising additional revenue. A year later Gov. John King bought his first lottery ticket at Rockingham Park. Since then 37 other states have established lotteries.
In a lot of ways it is fitting that the Granite State’s sole contribution was the lottery and that it occurred 50 years ago. New Hampshire’s political culture holds two values among others: find ways to raise revenue that seem voluntary and let other states do the experimenting. And in compact New England if one state, like Vermont, increases cigarette taxes, then Granite State businesses that sell cigarettes on the border do more business.
The idea that states should be the “laboratories of democracy” wasn’t actually mentioned by the nation’s founding fathers, but rather observed by U.S. Supreme Court JusticeLouis Brandeis amid the Great Depression. He said then: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
The truth is that maybe we in New Hampshire have it all figured out. One could argue that our state’s resistance to try novel social and economic experiments is a sign that our leaders aren’t willing to step up and try to address problems. Others could argue that we let other states take the risk and we just steal their best practices.
After all, isn’t New Hampshire more defined by what it hasn’t done – for instance, not implementing an income tax or sales tax or seatbelt laws – than for what it has? NH