If it ain’t broke …

The New Hampshire House, with its new overwhelming Republican majorities, has been off to a rocky start. The Legislature needs to be careful, in its efforts to balance the budget and assert Republican control, not to destroy New Hampshire institutions that work in a misguided effort to change things.

In its first couple of weeks, two examples of this danger presented themselves:

There was a call by a number of legislators to change the way the attorney general is chosen. This ostensibly was the reaction to testimony by Attorney General Michael Delaney in opposition to a bill that would have directed the state to join a lawsuit opposing the federal health-care law. Delaney indicated that joining that lawsuit was an unconstitutional overstep by the Legislature.

Legislators, who generally do not like to be told that they cannot pass certain kinds of legislation or that they do not have certain power, reacted with the proposal to elect the attorney general every two years by the Legislature, just as the Secretary of State and State Treasurer are elected. The attorney general is currently nominated to a four-year term by the governor and that appointment, like all others, has to be confirmed by the Executive Council.

Many states elect their attorneys general, which results in expensive campaigns and “political” attorneys general, sometimes elected in a landslide because of who is running for president, governor, or other office.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, has attorneys general who, while not non-political, traditionally have been appointed because of their legal talent, administrative ability and experience.

New Hampshire has a unique system in which we have few full-time, professional elected officeholders selected by the people. In fact, the governor is the only state officeholder who receives a full-time salary and serves in office as his primary occupation. The five executive councilors, the 24 state senators and 400 representatives all are part-time in one fashion or another, certainly in terms of pay.

The system works. There is no reason to change it. Certainly, frustrated legislators or those who do not like a particular position taken by an attorney general are entitled to their point of view, and an attorney general is likely to get disagreement from those who think he or she should take a different position.

Joseph McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, made many of these points in a Jan. 19 editorial. As McQuaid said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”*****Another overly broad proposal considered by the Legislature was House Bill 113, a proposal by Manchester Rep. Steve Vaillancourt to prohibit the University System of New Hampshire from using any of its funds to support New Hampshire Public Television.

Since NHPTV gets a significant amount of its support from the state through the university system, passage of this bill would cripple, if not destroy, NHPTV.Several things are wrong with the proposal:• To cut funding off entirely and immediately by prohibiting the university system from funding NHPTV, is a meat-ax approach. If an adjustment to the appropriation is to be made, it should be done gradually so that an alternative can be found.• The Legislature should be very careful about legislation directing the university system to do any particular thing. If that were not the case, legislators could introduce bills on what could be taught, what points of view needed to be expressed, and other matters that would threaten the academic freedom on the system’s campuses. Passage of House Bill 113 would be a precedent that might make such fallacious proposals seem palatable.• The budget process is the appropriate place to consider appropriations. The merits of particular lines in the budget or purposes for funding should be considered in that process.• NHPTV provides services to the state that are not obvious. Its network of broadcast towers also aids communications for emergency notification, broadcast and other facilities. Were NHPTV unable to provide these services, other state agencies and private and public concerns using the towers would have to look elsewhere.HB 113 is just plain bad legislation. Hopefully, House members will realize that when they consider it. If not, certainly the Senate should shelve this attempt and focus on appropriate legislation and proper budget procedures. More importantly, the value of NHPTV as an institution in New Hampshire should be reaffirmed, saluted and continued.
Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.