If It Ain't Broke, Brake It

Here in New Hampshire, we’re rather proud of our minimalist approach to government. Our annual budget state budget runs about 4.6 billion dollars (a bit more than I thought), or about $4,200 per citizen per year. We keep a pretty tight eye on our legislature (they’re the ones that pass the laws and spend the money, after all), and we have several ways we keep the brakes on expanding the power of government.

The first one is my favorite, the “big gun,” the one that has never been invoked. Enshrined in our Constitution (Article 10) is the Right Of Revolution:

Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.

That’s right, you poor wretches who are stranded in the other 49 states. Here in New Hampshire, we not only have the RIGHT to overthrow our government if it goes too far, we have the DUTY.

The second one is that we simply don’t give the government too much money. Money is power in politics, and as P. J. O’Rourke said, “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” We are the only state in the union that has no sales tax or income tax, two traditional sources of revenue for governments. And no governor has been elected who has not vowed to veto any measure to bring them about.

The third way is probably the most subtle — and the one that is currently under attack. It’s the way we make sure the state government doesn’t run amok on us.

Our legislature consists of 24 Senators and 400 Representatives (the third-largest deliberative body in the world, dwarfed only by the US House of Representatives and the British House Of Commons). This means that, on average, every state Representative has a constituency of less than 3000 people — and that implies that the chance that a New Hampshire voter not only knows his representative’s name, but knows him or her personally — and can call them to account quite readily.

But it’s not just the sheer size of the legislature that keeps things on a tight rein. It’s that the job pays abysmally. New Hampshire Representatives and Senators are the poorest-paid lawmakers in the country by far. We pay them $100 per year, plus mileage. This guarantees that our lawmakers stay amateurs and don’t turn pro.

When a legislator starts seeing their “job” is law-maker, then they start trying to justify their pay by passing more laws. This is a recipe for disaster, as we’ve seen in many other cases. Our attitude is that public service is not an opportunity, but a duty — and it should be an onerous one. Our lawmakers have a powerful incentive to spend as little time in Concord as possible, and are actively encouraged to spend more time at home.

Well, there’s a move afoot to change that.

Here in New Hampshire, we have noticed a disturbing trend — people come here to get away from the wretched state of their home state, and then promptly start trying to re-create the very conditions that they fled. It’s especially noticeable with folks from Massachusetts.

One of them is state Representative Anthony DiFruscia of Salem, NH. He’s pushing to raise the salary of lawmakers from $100 per year to $100 per week. It’s still a relative drop in the bucket (it would only increase their pay to $5200/year and add $2.1 million to the state’s total budget), but that’s still too damned much.

Mr. DiFruscia is an experienced legislator. Before moving to New Hampshire, he served in the Massachusetts legislature. And while he insists that he does not want New Hampshire’s legislature to begin to resemble the Bay State’s in any way (there lawmakers’ starting pay is, I believe, around $58,000 a year), this is a big step in that direction.

The crux of Mr. DiFruscia’s argument seems to be that the legislature — in particular, the representatives — are, shall we say, “unrepresentative.” According to him, they tend to be older retirees and independently wealthy people and professionals — the sort of people that have the time to devote to state service. He wants a legislature that looks more like New Hampshire.

As a citizen and taxpayer of New Hampshire, I say screw that.

I don’t give a rat’s ass what my legislature looks like. I care about what they do. And for the most part, they do the right thing. I’m not entirely thrilled about how they passed the recent “civil unions” bit (it was a top priority of the newly-Democratic majority, but hardly any of them campaigned on that as an issue — kind of like Bill Clinton and the gays in the military thing), but I am happy with the results and can live with the way it was done.

So our legislature’s 47% retirees, 3% homemakers, and 1.5% students. And big whoop that 60% of them are over 60. They’re doing OK by me.

Maybe it’s my innate Yankee stubbornness and old-fashioned ways, but I tend to be resistant to change. Call me unreasonable, but before I’ll go along with any major changes, first I have to be convinced that 1) there really is a problem, and 2) the changes will actually improve things.

And jacking up how much we (meaning “me”) pay our legislators fails on both counts.

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas!