January 22, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
The most sensational stories make the news but the most important work of the legislature is too boring for anyone much to care. The sensational stories will have little or no impact on New Hampshire. The boring stories have a long lasting but not sensational impact for years to come. That fundamental conflict is the long term struggle good public policy faces and it will be on display this year.
Some issues are more fun than others. The state’s House of Representatives passed a law legalizing marijuana last week. Certainly the debate raises interesting issues about changing societal attitudes, whether a prohibition structure is effective, the government’s legitimate role in drawing a line between legal and illegal substances. But the media response to the issue is all out of proportion to the issue’s relevance to current affairs.
This issue, which has no actual chance of becoming law this year, ought to be covered. But the disproportionate coverage of it is related to the titillation. Time magazine’s headline came with an attached giggle: “New Hampshire House Votes For Legal Weed.” Every editor’s secret adolescent fantasy about working the word pot or weed into a headline has become reality. It’s worth noting that the debate over last year’s passage of a medical marijuana law was accompanied by no such titillation.
A marijuana law is fun for headlines and television. If only the legislature would debate legalizing and taxing prostitution some poor newsman’s head might explode with glee.
Much of the work of state government and the legislature is dramatically less dramatic. Ultimately, the hard work of the legislature is a trustee managing what government has decided it is to do and exercising fiduciary oversight. Think of them as trustees acting on our behalf.
Unfortunately, that role is incredibly boring. Are you excited about debates over the rainy day fund and expected revenue growth? Of course not. You’re a normal person and it bores you to tears (we’ll leave aside, for the time being, the question of how normal you can be if you’ve actually read this far in a column of mine).
But the boring work is important. Congress ignores its fiduciary role regularly and as a result we have a debate about whether a balanced federal budget is even theoretically possible or relevant.
The state will ignore the details for a few years until we have serious structural problems and have to make some sort of sudden correction. You’ll remember the supposedly draconian budget passed in 2011? It was a very difficult 6.2% cut at the end of day (on an apples to apples basis).
The amount of correction needed became worse and worse as each year went by and they didn’t do anything. But failing to act isn’t news. It becomes news when the problem has grown so large that the required action is painful.
A small example of this is the current debate over state transportation spending. Year after year highway spending got worse. It’s not that we didn’t spend money but that we spent it on the wrong things. There is an obvious reason for that. We name big, exciting projects for politicians. We don’t name routine but cost-saving maintenance after anyone.
No politician ever ran for office bragging about how he increased the paving schedule which will lead to a gradual reduction is the number of miles under higher cost disrepair as opposed to more inexpensive fixes. I’m getting bored just writing the words.
In the end we like brand new, fun, high tech (and completely unnecessary) overhead high speed tolling. It’s really cool and people notice it. On the other hand, paving 42 miles of state route 865 before its gets into a state where it has to be completely redone at 20 times the cost is hardly conversational.
There must be a way to reward politicians for doing the hard work that’s boring. I think the only real way is to force them to talk more often about details. We may not always understand the details but they should be able to discuss them in a way that gives us at least some confidence they’re paying attention.
In addition, next time they talk about a big, bold new initiative ask them about the cost. How much was it and what were the alternative uses of what is after all our money (including, dare I say it, letting us keep it and use it ourselves).
I don’t begrudge a headline writer another fun drug story so long as there’s still a spot or two for the boring stuff.