State House Memo: How many busted TVs can one state afford?
In the summer of 1973, I stood with my new husband groaning over our latest TV set. I say “our latest” because it was the 10th or 12th set we’d owned since our wedding. We were dismayed because the picture rolled so fast we couldn’t parse it, and no amount of adjusting helped. The thing was kaput.
My husband’s TV-shopping was based on a starting assumption: TV was a wasteland, so spending money on it was bad. To avoid spending money on wastelands, hubby would pick up a used set for $15, and we’d endure the annoying buzz or distorted picture until the thing died a week later. Then he’d cop a freebie from somebody’s trash, which would last two days. Next he’d drag home a second-hand find for $40, and we’d watch that until it croaked.
Eventually, I began listing TVs-in and cash-out, along with our viewing habits. By the summer evening in question, we’d been married several months, and we had no working TV despite spending more than $600 on used sets while a brand-new black-and-white model ran a hundred bucks.
We could afford a new TV. My husband earned good money, I worked part-time, and our savings flourished. I mentioned the exorbitant total we’d spent.
I detailed the frustration and inconvenience we’d suffered. I pointed out that, despite vast expenditures of time, energy and money, we were now minus a TV which, wasteland or no, we watched every single day we had access to one.
Let’s skip the ensuing argument; you know it by heart. New Hampshire holds the same argument every biennium about funding state government.
In 1973, hubby and I had resources for buying a brand-new TV set with a warranty. In 2013, stable resources to provide for New Hampshire needs – mental health services, school aid, affordable housing, good roads and bridges, safe water and waste management, you name it – already exist within our borders. We’re the nation’s sixth-wealthiest state. Our problem isn’t lack of money; it’s our starting assumptions.
When we automatically label spending as “wasteful,” that’s an assumption. Since we’re just exiting frost-heave and pothole season and currently have only one drive-able bridge to Maine, let’s ask: Is spending state money on roads and bridges “wasteful”? Well, what happens when we don’t spend? Individual drivers traveling to Maine buy more gas. Traffic on that one open bridge gets heavier, and it takes longer to get where we’re going. Individual drivers’ cars go out of alignment traversing potholes, necessitating expensive repairs. Truckers bringing goods from Maine must take the long way around to some destinations, jacking up prices at our end.
The state saves money, but you and I pay plenty, and repeatedly, out-of-pocket. Those semi-functional TV sets are more than just annoying; they devour personal budgets, bite by bite, over time.
Is mental health spending “wasteful”? Well, what happens when we cut it? Individual families pay heavily out-of-pocket for care, and lose substantial income when one adult must remain home to supervise a loved one. What about families who simply can’t afford this? We get rising costs at the community level, where local welfare kicks in, school budgets are affected, and first responders must search for wandering elders or children, or answer disturbance or “nuisance” calls. Our jails fill up with people who don’t belong there, but must be monitored, with overtime or extra staff we all pay for while real needs go unmet. On very rare occasions, lack of care can even result in danger or violence, putting any of us at risk.
When that “free” TV set short-circuits and sets the curtains ablaze, it starts looking costly.
The New Hampshire House will soon vote on expanded gambling. We all know the arguments for and against: crime vs. jobs, addiction vs. revenue, taxing ourselves vs. taxing tourists, and we’re under pressure from everywhere.
A two-year governmental structure doesn’t encourage long views, but surely that’s what we need here: an examination of our starting assumptions and how they sway our decisions.
We know where hubby’s starting assumptions led – good money thrown after bad – but what about this casino concept? This possibility leads us into one kind of future, but also leads away from others. What opportunities do we leave behind when we start down this road? Casinos open for business only as long as they profit their owners.
What if our starting assumption is that our state’s long-term best interests are at stake? What if we start by assuming that roads inevitably develop potholes, that our citizens will always include some who require help, that our common need for good schools, decent health care, potable water, sound housing, safe neighborhoods, jobs that pay living wages, clean air, and ethical business and service practices will never disappear? What is the responsible approach to a set of starting assumptions like these?
(State Rep. Jane J. Hunt is a Democrat from Concord.)