Thursday, March 13, 2008

NH Gets a D+

The Pew Research Center released a report last week, grading states on the efficiency of their governments. NH scored a D+ - the lowest grade in the nation. The report found that NH is particularly weak with regards to our infrastructure, and long range planning. At this point, the 10-year transportation plan will take approximately 22 years to complete. The state has no capital plan. There is no plan for communication infrastructure. For hundreds of years we’ve been told that cheap equals efficient. Apparently that just isn’t so.

Our state government is structured in such a way as to restrict government growth. It’s a good thought – and one that worked okay a century or two ago. The governor serves a two-year term. Agency heads serve four-year terms. Every governor is forced to deal with agency heads that may be completely hostile. A governor has little chance of enacting any reforms. The two-year election cycles apply to all state legislators as well. That two-year cycle does not lend itself to long term planning. The fact that those legislators are paid $100 a year ensures that that many of them are retired, and some quite elderly. I once testified before a committee, my testimony punctuated by the snores of one distinguished fellow, who awoke to educate me about the cost of a Model T Ford in 1940. I appreciate his dedication and service to the people of our state, but I don’t want him on the panel develops a plan for our communication infrastructure needs. We know that some legislators are befuddled by computers and email. Will NH develop a plan for communication infrastructure, or will it be ignored, and put off – like education funding or infrastructure funding?

The state is funded by a variety of narrow based taxes, the heaviest burden being comprised of property taxes. This regressive form of taxation ensures that NH is always in a financial crisis. As long as the state is in perpetual crisis mode, there can be no planning for the future, because monies must be aimed at paying the latest pound of cure for the most recent disaster. Our regressive tax system ensures that the state will never have enough money to deal with important issues like infrastructure. Remember all the talk last year about the sorry state of dams around the state? Think they’ve been repaired in the last year? How will this year’s spring thaw affect those dams?

I’ve just committed NH heresy by criticizing our tax structure. For decades we’ve been told that the only way to have effective state government is to tighten our belts, and make budget cuts. Any criticism of this makes one a “tax and spend librul.” Any criticism of “the pledge” makes one a candidate for burning at the stake. The terms have been defined by the NH GOP – and those terms ensure that there is no honest discussion of how our state government is funded. The pledge is a form of censorship. The pledge ensures that we can’t even talk about it, because if you want to discuss it, either you’re in favor of the underfunded crisis mode state government, or you’re a heretic who wants to RAISE TAXES. It’s been my experience that in order to solve a problem, one has to be able to discuss all of the options for solving it. That seems to work everywhere but NH.

One of the big problems in NH is that we hate change, and we want to do things the way we’ve always done them. This is why we have some duplication in state government. The Dept. of Fish and Game is sinking – hunting and fishing license sales have plummeted. The culture is changing – and shifting away from hunting and toward other forms of outdoor recreation. Occasionally there’s a great outpouring of concern as to how we will continue to fund the Dept. of Fish and Game. No one ever seems to wonder why we should. If Fish and Game isn’t financially feasible any longer, why not downsize it and merge Fish and Game with the Dept. of Resources and Economic Development? The Dept. of Resources and Economic Development already includes Parks and Recreation, Forests and Lands, and Travel and Tourism – so why not Fish and Game, too? This, too, is heresy. To suggest that NH change is just – wrong. There must be ways to honor the past while moving into the future. It’s a pity we aren’t interested in being creative enough to find those solutions, instead of being mired in the way it’s always been.

Former Governor Craig Benson was hailed as a successful businessman who would run our state like a business. We all remember his kitchen table analogy, about living within our means. No one ever dared point out the flaw in his thinking. Envision a business facing steadily rising overhead costs. Will they keep the price of their product the same? Or will the price of their product be increased, in order to stay in business? In NH, the answer to rising overhead is to eliminate revenue sources, while cutting spending – and this is presented to us as a sane way to run a state. It’s the D+ way.

“Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.” Richard J. Cushing

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