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Stop party work by state employees

Last modified: 5/20/2012 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire taxpayers should not foot the bill for campaign-related, on-the-job activities of state employees, nor should election-related work be done on state time. It's one thing for employees in the majority and minority offices of the House and Senate to do partisan work on behalf of legislation, quite another to do work that rightly should be performed by the staff of political parties.

The practice was called into question by the payment of a $455.66 mileage reimbursement collected by former Mont Vernon state representative Robert Mead. Mead, whose job was described as being in charge of "legislative outreach" billed the state for trips to meetings where he tried to recruit Republican candidates for the House.

Mead was the only member of the House majority or minority office to submit a request for mileage reimbursement. His counterpart in the minority office performs similar duties on behalf of the Democrats, but that employee is paid not with public funds but with money from a political action committee.

Mead's mileage request was approved by Greg Moore, House Speaker Bill O'Brien's chief of staff. But once Monitor reporter Matthew Spolar broke the news of the payment, O'Brien, and House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt rightly asked Mead to return the money, which they say he did. He also resigned from his $64,380 job. The bigger, unanswered question: Should Mead's job have entailed campaign work at public expense at all? And did O'Brien and Bettencourt structure the job the allow him to do party work on the public payroll?

The New Hampshire General Court's ethics guidelines don't prohibit campaign or electoral work by employees on state time, but state law RSA 659:44a comes close. It states that "No public employee . . . shall electioneer while in the performance of his or her official duties or use government property, including, but not limited to, telephones, facsimile machines, vehicles and computers."

The law does not apply perfectly in Mead's case because it specifically includes employees appointed by the governor or a legislative body. Nor, under the law, may recruiting candidates necessarily count as "electioneering." Those, however, are flaws in the law that should be remedied because they allow some state employees to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 42 states have statutes that address the political activity of public employees. Some states apply the law equally to all state workers, including those in the legislative and executive branches of government. That's what New Hampshire should do.

Many states, particularly those with highly paid legislators instead of citizen legislatures, have partisan staff members on the public payroll. Those staffs tend to increase, as do the salaries of the people on them. That's not a path New Hampshire should be on.

Public employees who want to engage in political activity should take time off to do so. That happens routinely in New Hampshire, for example, when a member of the governor's staff takes a leave of absence to work for his or her reelection campaign.

What were New Hampshire taxpayers getting for their money when they paid Mead's salary? What does any taxpayer, particularly those who are undeclared voters or members of a minority party, get when state employees do the work of political parties on the job? Not anything they'd willingly pay for. The next session of the Legislature should specifically prohibit on-the-job political activity by all state employees.


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