Our Turn: It’s time for Legislature, not the governor, to legislate

For the Monitor
Published: 11/30/2020 1:00:09 PM

One of us is a Democrat, one of us is a Republican. We’re both former majority leaders of the New Hampshire Senate. And we’re both deeply concerned about the diminished role of our citizen-led Legislature, at a time when our Legislature is needed now, more than ever.

We fully recognize the incoming Legislature faces a number of challenges and choices, but perhaps no more important than the choice to get back to what the Legislature does: create laws and budgets. Right now, New Hampshire is essentially operating under one-person government, with the governor serving the role of governor and Legislature (sometimes even judiciary). One-person government was never intended by our founders, it is not healthy for our democracy, and we’ve seen the adverse consequences.

First, the governor has legislated through executive orders, including some that have unilaterally extended his authority into private property rights.

Second, the governor has made ample use of no-bid contracts and unilateral “grant” or “loan” disbursements of taxpayer money, often on his own ever-evolving terms and conditions and sometimes without any public scrutiny or oversight. Finally, breaking a bipartisan tradition in a time of crisis, the governor took complete control of over 1 billion in federal pandemic relief money provided to New Hampshire.

To the latter, the anti-democratic consequence of one governor – regardless of who she is or her political party – taking complete and total control over $1 billion in relief money is that many advocates, organizations, and entities who would typically provide constructive criticism of the management of the budget in a crisis, the information presented at press conferences, or the crisis response itself, were silenced because they needed the governor’s approval in order to get the relief money to survive or get by. The absence of constructive criticism, of course, helped lead to record approval ratings for the governor, although much less discussed but of much greater importance and consequence: it quieted our democracy on key issues. We’ve already seen the negative impact as key issues the Legislature has led on, like children’s mental health services as well as homelessness and housing, have fallen by the wayside. New Hampshire does democracy better than anywhere else, but, unfortunately, in this pandemic the elevation and public discussion of important issues facing our families, businesses and communities has largely given way to one-off deals behind closed doors.

This new culture in Concord is not beneficial to the public interest, as this government should belong to everyone and no one person or one political party has a monopoly over good ideas. In fact, the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down. That’s why our citizen-led Legislature is so important, particularly right now.

In our view, it’s time for the Legislature to step up, for all of us. When one of us recently ran for governor, he promised to restore power to the Legislature, including on any renewal of the state of emergency. The Legislature should pass laws, craft a budget and demand transparency on the budget from the executive branch, and it should pass its own concurrent resolution on the state of emergency. It can do so without threat of veto under RSA 4:45. The governor has unilaterally renewed the state of emergency every 21 days, renewed 11 times, on his own terms and conditions and often giving himself unilateral authority.

It’s clear this pandemic is not going away anytime soon and it’s past-time the Legislature has a say on this state of emergency, including determining who has what authority and why. The failure to do so means one-person government will continue, and, by default, the public interest will not be served. Democracy doesn’t go away just because we are in a pandemic. It’s up to the Legislature to bring democracy back.

(Dan Feltes of Concord is the outgoing Majority Leader of the State Senate and was the 2020 Democratic nominee for governor. Bob Clegg of Hudson was Majority Leader of the State Senate from 2002 through 2006.)

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