By Charlie Arlinghaus
December 14, 2011
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

You would think that the most significant budget cut in modern history would have squeezed any potential waste and inefficiency from state government. You would be wrong. Despite a roughly 11% actual cut to the state budget, New Hampshire’s government remains a model of inefficiency. Personal use of state vehicles is the poster child our homegrown inefficiency.

Three years ago, The Pew Center for the States ranked New Hampshire dead last in the country in their triennial ranking of the states in government management. This wasn’t a complete shock. Just three years earlier, while there were worse states (California, for example), we were in the bottom five.

This wasn’t based on hostility toward frugal government. After all, in both surveys the State of Utah, a state with spending similar to ours, ranked number one.

Certainly the budget pressure has forced some departments of state government to eliminate inefficiency where they can. But the report on the state’s fleet management suggests a culture that could use some work.

My colleague Grant Bosse is in the middle of a detailed “fleet week” of stories on the personal use of state vehicles. The preliminary findings are difficult to believe.

State agencies must report vehicles with more than 15% of their mileage used for personal reasons (“non-business usage”). On those few hundred vehicles alone, state officials drove more than 1.5 million miles for personal use on the taxpayer dime.

There are some theories for the odd case or two of say a a bridge inspector taking a car home at night because his first inspection the next morning would make it inefficient to drive back to Concord and then pass his house again on his way to Bridge Number One.

That’s very sensible and very rare. According to official state records, some cars are driven as much as 70% of the time for personal use and the records suggest it is largely the case of a commissioner using a state vehicle issued to him and driving home every night. Does your boss give you a car to drive back and forth to work or do you have a job like the rest of us where they expect that going home at night is your responsibility?

In one relatively bizarre case, the car is driven 60% of the time for personal use and is garaged at night in Bethel, Maine. Why Bethel? That’s where the guy lives. He manages a ski area for us so maybe someone can explain to me how it makes any kind of sense for him to take a taxpayer-supported state vehicle home every night. I’m sorry he lives in Maine but why am I taxed so he can drive a state-owned Chevy Impala home every night instead of buying a car like the rest of us?

By the way, not every commissioner gets a car as a perk of the job. While the most egregious offenders tend to be commissioners or other managers, quite a few commissioners don’t appear on the list.

Oddly, the outrage over this practice does not seem to extend to the supposedly frugal legislature. Personal usage over 15% has to be reported to the legislative fiscal committee but at a meeting where at least some of these outrages were reported, legislators voted to make it easier to take your car home at night. The reporting threshold was raised to 20%. That seems to me the wrong response.

I don’t understand why any state vehicle is ever used for personal reasons — particularly for some commissioner to drive himself to and from work at our expense. That’s insane.

But I suspect it isn’t the only example of odd practices in state government that lead to our being ranked as having the least efficient state government in the country. Does anyone honestly think we’re less efficient than a state like New York? Of course not. But when a respectable organization ranks us last, we ought to at least take a look at some of the stupidest things we’re doing.

I’ve suggested in the past a new government efficiency commission. Have people from outside state government take a look inside state government. They’re less likely to say things like “but we always do that and it used to be worse.”

Some state lawmakers believe there is little inefficiency to be rooted out – this is New Hampshire after all. But that was before they knew we were paying some guy to drive a state car home to Maine every night.