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State House 101

Last modified: 1/14/2013 11:50:25 AM
Since winning a seat in the New Hampshire House in November, 60-year-old Democrat Mario Ratzki of Andover has been spending 20-30 hours a week learning some of the ropes of state government.

The experience has been a new one for Ratzki, a former Boston-area business owner who has never before held public office. During a recent interview, he offered these observations:

∎ Once you’re elected, incoming communications – e-mail, regular mail, phone calls – can quickly seem overwhelming. They come from state agencies, your political party, town and county government officials in your district, fellow legislators, lobbyists, constituents. Much of it is informational and orientational: what’s going on in the State House and your role in that activity. Many other communications bring problems for you to acknowledge, respond to and solve. (When you can.)

∎ You get two days of official “New Legislator Orientation.” This includes introductions all around, office tours, mock sessions and committee hearings. One lesson learned: If you must pass directly between the speaker of the House and the seated representatives during a legislative session, you must apologize.

∎ The House Democratic Caucus has its own Policy Agenda Day and Organization Day, attendance strongly recommended.

∎ Main sources of House-related information: (1) the House website (gencourt.state.nh.us/house/default.htm), which tells you where you need to be, what you’ll be dealing with, and with whom; and (2) The Black Book, issued to every member, which tells you how to behave once you get there.

∎ You also get a 44-page booklet about ethical behavior and a financial disclosure form requiring you to identify certain “sources of income” and “disclosure of financial interests” in “certain businesses, professions, occupations, groups, or matters.”

∎ The 16-page “New Legislator Orientation Manual” sets forth in general terms how the legislative branch of New Hampshire state government operates.

∎ A weekly “House Calendar” comes in the mail and is also available online. In the most recent edition, Ratzki is identified as having been assigned Seat Number 2047.

∎ You automatically become a member of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

∎ Your choices of committee assignments are not always honored. (But Ratzki’s appointment to the Public Works and Highways Committee is considered by at least one local selectman as an important plus.)

∎ While there’s no formal mentoring system to acclimate new members, most House veterans are readily approachable and available to discuss issues, answer questions and provide advice.

∎ On the other hand, there’s the occasional long-term member who knows the issues like the back of his hand and doesn’t feel a need to hear the opinions of a rookie. You learn this fairly quickly.

∎ So far at least, there’s a high degree of civility. One surprise: Since members have been assigned seats without regard to party affiliation, there will be no “other side of the aisle” to point fingers at.

∎ You get a plastic name tag to aid in introductions. The name tag does not identify party affiliation.

∎ You get $100 a year for your time.

∎ There’s a dress code. Gentlemen should wear a necktie and jacket. The rest is pretty much up to you.

∎ There’s a competent and supportive legislative staff available to help you do research, craft proposed legislation and find the rest rooms.

∎ Main perk: the special “House of Representatives” license plate. Up to two sets per member are offered. But if you want them, they’re $9 a set.

∎ Other major perk: free assigned parking.

∎ You get a half-hour briefing by local newspaper and TV reporters, the major point of which is that they are there to report on legislative activities, not to ambush legislators.

∎ Unless you’re a diehard on either end of the political spectrum, there are no black-and-white issues. Applying common sense and considering all sides (which Ratzki promised to do during his campaign) can be a lot of work. And require a lot of listening. (He’s trying hard.)

∎ Introducing a bill can be a complex process if you’re trying to learn all the ins and outs of the issue being addressed, and the legislative process itself. (Ratzki’s first effort: a bill to recoup $4 million in payments owed to New Hampshire by Massachusetts as a result of flood-control agreements dating back to the 1950s, has so far, with staff help, gone smoothly.)

∎ Battling entrenched bureaucracy in state agencies can be tough. Early lesson learned: Almost anyone can say no to a request, but only a select few can say yes. It pays sometimes to go straight to the top.

∎ The importance of maintaining constituent relations is emphasized repeatedly. (In response, in a letter to the Andover Beacon, Ratzki has committed to “keep Andover, Danbury, and Salisbury residents apprised of developments at the State House in Concord,” and provided contact information for reaching him. He’s also planning to hold monthly public “listening sessions.”)

∎ The New Hampshire State House, built in 1819 and full of historical references, can be an inspirational edifice, particularly when no one else is around. It’s a nice reminder of why you ran in the first place, and what you’re there to try to do.

(Larry Chase of Andover is a recovering corporate American.)


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