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Off Main: Explaining New Hampshire government to the uninitiated can be a daunting task

The State House dome is seen from the lobby of the Legislative Officce Building in Concord; March 25, 2012. House Bill 25 seeks to spend up to $1.25 million to repair the gold leaf and other aspects of the dome.
 The House Finance Committee will take up the matter on Tuesday.
(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

The State House dome is seen from the lobby of the Legislative Officce Building in Concord; March 25, 2012. House Bill 25 seeks to spend up to $1.25 million to repair the gold leaf and other aspects of the dome. The House Finance Committee will take up the matter on Tuesday. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

I was driving my brother back home from a restaurant last month and attempting to explain the New Hampshire political system. It’s a conversation I’ve had repeatedly over the last several years, sometimes with house guests from Kansas, sometimes with newcomers to the Granite State. It never goes very well.

“We’re special,” I tell my visitors, “because the entire state government turns over every two years. The whole State House – our House of Representatives, our Senate – faces our notoriously cranky voters like clockwork every two years.”

“But of course the governor has a four-year term,” my visitors say, voices innocent in that I’m just from Kansas or I haven’t yet met a dozen presidential candidates personally kind of way.

“No!” I say. “Even the governor has to campaign every two years. That’s why John Lynch, when running for his ‘unprecedented’ fourth term, was only trying for a seventh and eighth year at the helm.”

“Surely that leads to some problems,” my visitors say, just beginning to wrap their minds around the situation. “Isn’t everyone running for office all of the time?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” I continue. “How about the fact that the New Hampshire attorney general serves a four-year term? So you can be governor and not have a say in picking your top law-enforcement officer.”

Visitors tend to fall silent around this point. My brother may have tried to change the subject.

“And have you heard of the Executive Council?” I ask. “That’s a special group that comes together to approve nominations and state contracts. It means we have an incredibly weak governor. Imagine having a Democratic governor with a GOP-dominated Executive Council.”

“Have people tried to change this?” my visitors wonder.

“People know it causes problems. But New Hampshire really hates doing two things. One of them is changing. And the other one is spending money. Reforming how our state government operates would involve both.”

Talk then turns to the state Legislature.

I mention how New Hampshire has the second-largest legislative body in the United States (No. 1 is the U.S. Congress). We’re No. 4 among English-speaking bodies (the English and Indian parliaments are added to the mix). And because our lawmakers are paid only $100 a year, that means the folks who serve are often retired or independently wealthy.

“I bet that leads to a really representative body,” the more cynical of my guests laugh.

“They do well most of the time,” I say. “But it’s crazy to consider that a state of 1.3 million people has so many representatives! It’s almost as though residents here love their government so much that they just can’t stop electing people to serve.

“And yes, yes,” I go on, “I know that New Hampshire is libertarian and conservative in the small-c sense. I’m not going to argue with that. But as long as we’re not required to spend money on anything, we enjoy our legislative panels and select boards and cemetery committees. We need something to keep us occupied during those long winter months!”

Depending on the visitor, I can keep going for another column or two. But with my brother, the topic seemed exhausted.

We drove on, the two of us, and we talked of other things. We talked about trees (a lot more here than in Kansas). We talked about how people around here love to bicycle after dark while wearing dark clothes. We talked about my 3-year-old son and life in this peculiar piece of heaven.

And as we talked, and as twilight spread, back at the State House you could hear hundreds upon hundreds of people getting ready to run for re-election. Because that’s just the way things are.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305, cwirestone@cmonitor or on Twitter @ClayWires.)

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