August 8, 2012
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Good proposals often founder on the rocks of partisanship. It is a sad truth of current political wars that Republicans are meant to reject Democratic proposals simply because of the party that made them and vice versa. But even in the current supercharged atmosphere, there are quite a few reform proposals that people across the spectrum can support without impairing their ideological credentials.
Marjorie Smith, former Democratic chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, started the ball rolling by agreeing with my suggestion that our bifurcated executive branch with a semi-independent bureaucracy ought to change. You can just imagine some of her colleagues saying “couldn’t you take that position without agreeing with that annoying nit?”
Yet Rep. Smith is capable of seeing past our disagreements (we often have inverse views on the financial affairs of the state) and seeing the chance to build cross-partisan agreement on changes to make a better government for whomever we elect to run it.
If I can, I’d like to suggest two changes that should be agreeable to both parties and the new governor, whether it be Ovide Lamontagne or Jackie Cilley, Maggie Hassan or Kevin Smith.
The new governor will inherit his or her department heads and have the opportunity to change or reappoint only a small minority of them in the first six months in office. Current Gov. John Lynch improved the situation by signing a law four years ago to make commissioners’ terms expire. They used to serve until a replacement was confirmed, allowing governors to hold them over indefinitely or a council to refuse to accept a replacement and thereby keep the old guy.
But it is a small change. We can and should make all commissioners more directly accountable to the chief executive on whom we pass judgment every two years. Typically, Democrats oppose giving a GOP executive more authority, and vice versa, but today is different. The November election will produce a new governor, and neither party is a clear favorite. We can all agree that the person we support should have that authority and begrudgingly admit that even if our candidate loses, the other one should have the same authority.
But how? We can’t have commissioners serve just two years, or no one would take the job. A four-year gubernatorial term is more controversial. What we can do is stagger the terms, but create responsibility by allowing the governor to remove a commissioner for any reason he chooses. I would have all commissioners serve at the pleasure of the governor. But a removal procedure with or without council approval probably creates the right incentives for accountability.
There’s no ideological victory or defeat for either side in such a proposal, so why not join together and do it?
Similarly, both parties have an interest in having the best people able to serve. Yet the Legislature is an impossible chore for most of us. Sessions have gotten longer and longer so that it is now a full-time job and then some for the first six months of each year and a part-time job for the remainder. Fewer and fewer people are able to serve. This is particularly true in the Senate, in which 24 people have to cover the same ground as 400 in the House. It is almost certainly a cause of good people of both parties stepping aside.
No one, I think, would argue that we are better off for having another 1,000 or so prospective bills in the second year of a legislative session. Yet few people want the Legislature absent for the entire second year (not that they’re ever really absent from an oversight role). A solution is a return to biennial sessions.
The Legislature would meet in full, unrestricted session each odd-numbered year, just as today. But the second year would be restricted just as so-called special sessions were in the past. A limited session would be called and limited to specific proposals of some urgency. Under such a scenario, the Legislature wouldn’t cede any authority or privilege but would allow more to serve.
Again, this is a proposal that creates no partisan advantage, nor runs foul of either party’s philosophical underpinnings. It simply allows a better process.
These are but two examples of proposals that won’t displace partisan debate, but that needn’t run afoul of politics either. Others will suggest reorganizing government, streamlining Executive Council oversight, and reforming the structural components of the budget process. Philosophical fights are important to a free government, but so too is realizing that sometimes it’s all right to agree.