How many laws can we afford?

Interesting questions raised by the current legislative session

Periodically, I peruse the legislation being followed by various organizations, including the Business and Industry Association and the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. In doing so, issues of interest to the business community and major themes sometimes become apparent.

First, all of the bills that have faced the Legislature this year as thinly veiled attempts to derail the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline and the Northern Pass Project raise a fundamental question: Does New Hampshire have an energy policy? If so, what is it? Finally, why is there no executive leadership trying to enact that policy? 

It would seem that if the cost of electricity and power in New Hampshire is one of the major items cited as an impediment to attracting businesses, someone in government should get up the courage to say that these projects ought to be built and all of the parties should sit down at the table and figure out where and how. Constant sniping and the myriad of bills aimed at blocking or delaying such projects are not helpful. 

Next, taken as a whole, all of the bills raise the issue of the proper role of government. How many laws can we afford? And, perhaps more importantly, of the ones we already have, how many of them are not being enforced, in whole or in part, because the appropriating body, usually the Legislature, has not provided adequate funding? 

This was brought home to me recently in a very minor legislative exchange, when a relatively innocuous bill sought to add to the jurisdiction of the Ballot Law Commission, on which I serve.

While the aim of the bill, the enforcement of laws concerning campaign finance and the like was admirable, the proposal would have changed the nature of the jurisdiction and operations of the Ballot Law Commission. Upon deeper reflection, it became obvious that the reason the proponents sought this was that the law, already in existence, was not being enforced.

At a hearing that I did not attend, apparently the Attorney General’s Office admitted that it was not enforcing the law because the resources granted to it by the Legislature were insufficient. Thus, the proponents proposed to give it to the unpaid, unstaffed Ballot Law Commission for enforcement.

This specific example made me wonder if a study should be done of all the laws that we have that face a similar fate, namely, a lack of resources to enforce them. If there are a substantial number of these, a necessary result will be lack of respect for laws that are not enforced, and the need to consider whether they should exist at all!

Other laws and bills raise the question of whether we have any clear philosophy on the role of government vs. the role of the private sector.

This traditional conservative thinks that if private industry can do something, it probably can do it better than government, and should. In the face of this philosophy, however, well-meaning legislators often clog the legislative hopper with bills putting government into the arena of private business. 

One such bill, House Bill 1180, would permit municipalities to issue bonds to provide or expand Internet service, allowing municipalities in New Hampshire to own broadband infrastructure in places that are served by competing private businesses. No matter how frustrated we may be by our Internet service providers, this clearly appears to be an intrusion by government into the spirit of public business, with the possible exception of providing such service in such remote areas where Internet service cannot be provided profitably.

In any event, such attempts should be resisted. 

In the even year of legislative activity, when there is no budget to consider and elections loom, the Legislature still is faced with hundreds of bills.

Reviewing bills tracked by the business community, from a statistical prospective, the following numbers of bills still were being followed in mid-March in the following categories:

Economic development: 13

Education and workforce development: 13

Employment/labor law: 17

Energy: 20

Environmental affairs: four 

Fiscal policy: 21

Health care: six 

Telecommunications: three 

The Legislature continues to meet and will deal with all of these bills plus those not being followed by business, wrapping up its business at the end of May or beginning of June. After that, each legislator has to decide whether he or she will seek re-election and go through that process, all for $100 a year, plus mileage. 

What government does and the philosophy behind it, especially in a year when we have heard so much chatter from those seeking to lead the country, should be a subject for serious thought by us all.  

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord