Annoy the Candidates, Ask them Questions

Charlie Arlinghaus

July 25, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Candidates are supposed to avoid being specific during elections. They are regularly told by the bulk of the consulting corps that telling people what you might or might not do as governor only makes people mad, costs you votes and limits your options once you get elected.

Pledges and specific proposals are troublesome and should be avoided at all costs. Instead of telling us what you plan to do, discuss the problem, share your concerns for the future and say quite forcefully that we need to work together to find a solution. Message: You care.

This is a great plan for the politician who seeks popularity and adulation. If your goal is to be likeable and liked, specifics are not your friend. If your goal is to lead the state and build support for solution-oriented proposals, you might want to be specific during a campaign, lay out concrete proposals and provide details about your preferred solution.

Specifics will keep you from achieving 80 and 90 percent approval ratings. Lack of specifics will keep you from achieving much if you do manage to get elected. In addition to everything else, policy is boring and requires a lot of studying and reading numbers.

So candidates go forward in an election talking in vague generalities about the importance of jobs, bringing people together, fighting for a stronger economy, hot dogs and apple pie — unless, of course, you prefer lemon meringue.

Voters are in a unique position during the election cycle. Candidates desperately need us. They cross the state seeking handfuls of us to speak with and are forced to take questions from anyone who happens to show up about anything they want to ask about.

After the election, they are surrounded by lobbyists, agency heads and people who have time to spend at the State House during the middle of a work day. But during the election phase, we can force them to commit to us on specific issues, answer questions in public about where they stand on every issue and get them to rule in or rule out approaches to the problems of the day.

This is particularly important. Many a candidate in history (although no one running this year I should hasten to add) has told one group he’s in favor of something and another group he’s opposed to, or at least given each diametrically-opposed group the impression he’s sympathetic to them. Only when forced to publicly declare a position is one group then surprised.

The next Legislature will deal with a host of issues large and small, none of which is new to any candidate. I want to know where everyone stands in some detail.

The state’s pension system is among the worst funded in the country. Everyone is planning on doing something, but what specifically? Will you support a defined contribution or insist that defined benefits be required? What specific changes would you make if elected, how would that affect the cost to taxpayers at every level, and would those changes actually stop liabilities from growing much faster than the assets we have to pay those liabilities?

Taxes are always an issue in New Hampshire. Part of candidate transparency is the pledge. At this point, every politician knows where he or she stands on an income tax — yes or no? How about other taxes? The economy is still uncertain, will increasing other taxes be part of your budget or not? You know enough today to tell us that.

The Tax Foundation finds our business taxes the highest in the country. Will you lower them over time? How much? What will that cost and how would you pay for it?

I’m not revealing any secrets when I tell you that the last budget was the most significant cut in modern history. Will you preserve those cuts? If you intend to add some spending back, what areas would you increase first, and how would you pay for that increase?

Are current government structures appropriate? Would you give the governor greater control over the executive branch? How do you feel about biennial sessions for legislators to allow more people to serve?

Would you support an education funding amendment? Will you restructure state aid to education? Will you support or try to repeal the school choice plan enacted last year?

There are dozens of other issues. You should ask each candidate his or her opinion on each of them. The more we know, the fewer surprises we have. Political consultants want them to tell us less. We should demand more.