August 15, 2012
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
New Hampshire is not a modern state nor is it run like a modern state. Each day in the news there is some other reminder that we run ourselves like some odd backwater anachronism and pretend it is a virtue not just silliness.
The Liquor Commission is in the news for having misplaced hundreds of cases of wine which weren’t supposed to exist but did and then didn’t. The real oddity is not the case of the mystery wine but the commission itself and why it even exists.
The Liquor Commission is the name of a department of state government and also three full-time executives who jointly run that department in a structure which was mostly eliminated in the 1980s.
As recently as the 1980s, many chunks of New Hampshire’s government were run not by an agency head but by three member commissions. We didn’t have a revenue commissioner; we had a three-man Tax Commission. Prisons had a board of trustees not a corrections commissioner. There were similar arrangements throughout state government.
During the Sununu administration, government underwent the last full scale reorganization. Taxes were managed not by an archaic multi-headed tax commission but by a single revenue commissioner responsible to the governor. Various administrative and human service functions were united with the Comptroller’s office under an Administrative Services commissioner. A bunch of small commissions were amalgamated into the Department of Cultural resources.
But one area left untouched was Liquor, probably for political reasons. So the state liquor monopoly, a business of almost $600 million each year, is not managed by one executive responsible to the governor. Instead it is controlled by a commission of three full-time executives — management by committee with one of three serving as chairman.
That has to change.
Recently, the Employment Security commissioner and her deputy were both forced to resign. As a temporary measure, the commissioner of Labor will fill in as acting commissioner.
Yet New Hampshire is one of the few states in the union which has these two departments separated. Instead of one guy filling in temporarily in one department while his deputy runs the other, why don’t we merge the two as so many other states have done and have these two guys run one more efficient department. I suspect these aren’t the only two departments that might easily be combined (think, for example, of the similarities of function in regulating banking, insurance, and securities).
Finally, you may have seen a news report about one of the executive councilors concerned that the education commissioner didn’t sit through all of the council meetings but too often sent her deputy.
In New Hampshire, our unique Executive Council not only confirms appointments but meets regularly to review much of state government. They approve appointments of not just commissioners but a few hundred people each year, probably a thousand positions in total; they approve contract and expenditure over $10,000, and various other expenses including, inexplicably, routine tuition payments of even a few hundred dollars.
They conduct this business twice a month with an agenda of a few hundred items and, for some odd reason, in the name of efficient government expect all the state department heads to sit through the entire thing in case they have questions. I’m not sure why making the entire management of state government sit for many hours is considered efficient or well advised.
It seems perhaps that the education commissioner has the right idea. The agenda is published well in advance. Although (again inexplicably) none of the electronically generated documents are available online for the public to see, a mountain of paper copies is hand delivered to each councilor well in advance of the meeting. It seems unlikely that any councilor has questions which just pop up mid meeting. In the absence of questions ahead of time, it’s quite sensible for a commissioner to send a lower level staffer and make herself available if anything were to come up.
But such is our state government. The way we’ve always done things is presented as a virtue. Change is annoying even if it proves to be more efficient. Situations like the one at employment security provide opportunity for change. But a more complete look is needed. The world has changed a great deal since 1985. Isn’t it conceivable that our government should too?