Grant Bosse: Two big state elections you probably missed
New Hampshire loves elections. Between town meeting, the first-in-the-nation primary, and our relatively high turnout, Granite Staters clearly like voting. Yet only one of our state officials is elected by the entire state. Two others are picked by not by voters themselves, but by the representatives and senators they send to Concord.
Last week, Treasurer Catherine Provencher and Secretary of State Bill Gardner were re-elected to their posts by the House and Senate. Despite the importance of these two jobs, neither was opposed, and their re-elections hardly caused a ripple in the media.
Most state agencies are headed by commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Executive Council. But the New Hampshire Constitution calls for the House and Senate to jointly elect the secretary of state and treasurer. Yet the Constitution is mostly silent on the duties of each office.
The treasurer signs every check that comes from state government and is responsible for the cash flow, investment management, debt management and the state’s abandoned property program. The Legislature also has a habit of sticking the treasurer onto statutory committees as a sort of fiscal chaperone.
Provencher serves on more than a dozen standing committees, ranging from the New Hampshire Retirement System, the UNIQUE College Investment Plan and the Municipal Bond Bank, to the Nuclear Decommissioning Financing Committee. Twenty-four years in the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office, including 10 as director of audits, may have prepared Provencher for bond ratings and surplus statements, but it didn’t make her an expert on nuclear reactors. She says it’s important to have an actuarial voice on these far-flung committees.
“It can spread me out a little thin, but it’s critically important to have knowledgeable state presence,” Provencher argues. “You need to set aside assets for when the nuclear power plant is decommissioned, almost like an actuarial valuation for the state pensions.
Provencher saw New Hampshire’s debt balloon by 43 percent between 2007 and 2011. The Legislature decided to massively increase state borrowing, and it was left to Provencher’s office to figure out how. She says the state maintains an above-average bond rating because even after leaning on bonds over the past several years, New Hampshire still borrows less than most states.
Provencher says that’s why last month’s sale of $90 million in general-obligation bonds went so well. The 1.97 percent true interest cost was the lowest New Hampshire has ever seen.
“We continue to enjoy a very strong credit rating. The supply of New Hampshire debt in the bond marketplace as a whole is very low,” Provencher explains.
While New Hampshire’s cash flow is fine, Provencher worries about how Washington’s failure to handle its budget could hurt the state’s finances. In the official statement accompanying November’s bond sale, Provencher warned that should Congress take the country over the “fiscal cliff,” up to $500 million in federal funds would be subject to sequester, putting at risk as much as $38 million in New Hampshire revenue.
Send in Gardner!
Perhaps, we should just send Gardner to Washington is fix the budget. His superpowers gained fame, at least on Twitter, last October, as he stared down Nevada’s latest threat to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
The secretary of state not only conducts state elections, but is also responsible for all state records. The State Department’s Corporate Division is responsible for statutory filings for business, trademarks and trade names.
Setting the date for the presidential primary, at least a full week before any similar contest, is actually one of the secretary of state’s newest duties. The Legislature gave up its control of the calendar in order to give Gardner flexibility to fend off potential challengers. While protecting the primary has made Gardner a legend among political junkies, it’s just a small part of the job he’s held since 1976.
Gardner is the longest-serving secretary of state in the county, but probably the most respected by his peers. That respect extends to the New Hampshire House and Senate.
He was a Democratic representative from Manchester when a Legislature dominated by Republicans picked him to replace Robert Stark, who died in office. Gardner has been routinely re-elected by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, often unopposed.
Provencher has held her post for just six years, but she too has survived the wild political swings of the past several elections.
These two important jobs are neither glamorous nor political stepping stones to higher office. They are two crucial pieces of the executive branch that don’t answer to the governor and council. Between them, Gardner and Provencher handle every dollar the state spends, every bill the Legislature passes, and every record the state keeps.
We are well served.
(Grant Bosse is vice president for media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.)