Down in Concord

“Politicians are interested in people. Not that this is always a virtue. Fleas are interested in dogs.” — P.J. O’Rourke

Every so often someone writes yet another column asking “Why can’t Republicans and Democrats get along? Can’t they talk to each other, work together, find a compromise?” The short answer is “We do, most of the time.” A second answer is “There are times when we should not.”

The simple truth is that NH legislators do work together, are very civil to each other (with rare, though well publicized, exceptions), and often become life-long friends. Anyone who says otherwise either has not observed first hand how the legislature works or is trying to make a political point. All too often, it is a mixture of both. Someone starts a narrative about the mean old nasty so and so party, repeats it over and over again, then people with no first hand knowledge come to believe it. (After all, politicians never lie.)

Let’s start with some anecdotal evidence, then some numbers. Earlier this year I went down to Concord to testify against a bill. It happened that one of my former colleagues, a very left Democrat, also testified against that same bill and he happened to go first. Later, when I testified, I remarked that this was the first time in two years that he and I had agreed on a bill. Later, we met out in the hall and laughed together. We encouraged each other to convince other members of our two parties. (The bill was eventually defeated with a bipartisan vote.)

Last session, a hard left Democrat and a hard right Republican worked closely together on a particular bill. Coincidentally, the two were geographically on the far left and far right sides of the state. They both worked very hard to pass their bill; they managed one of the rare instances of overturning a committee recommendation on the House floor. I was happy to work with both of them on that bill. Later the two of them worked together on another bill.

Now let’s look at some numbers. This year the House and Senate passed 281 bills. A full 188 of those bills, were passed by the House on the Consent Calendar. For those who may not have read my previous columns, suffice it to say that bills on Consent have all but unanimous support. Two-thirds of all the bills that were passed, were unanimous. (And of the bills that were killed, many, perhaps most, were also unanimous.)

So any time you hear complaints about legislators being mean and nasty to each other, not working together, please realize that it is almost always someone trying to stir up trouble for partisan advantage. The truth is that they DO work together, usually in a collegial, respectful atmosphere.

But there are times when they should not compromise. Suppose a Democrat and a Republican decide to drive down to New York City. For those who are geographically impaired, NYC is mostly South and a little West of us. Now let’s suppose that the two politicians approach an intersection. The Democrat wants to turn left and head North; the Republican wants to turn right and head South. Should they compromise and head East?

On some issues the division is just as stark as the choice between driving North or South – it makes no sense to compromise on East.

Republicans, generally speaking, want to cut taxes; Democrats want to increase taxes. This year Democrats pushed hard for an increase in the gas tax of 15 cents. They later offered a compromise of 12 cents. Why should Republicans compromise on any increase at all, when what we really want is to reduce taxes?

Democrats for the most part want bigger, more powerful government. Republicans want smaller, limited government. How can the two sides compromise when they are such opposites? (Historically, Republicans have compromised on a little bigger here, a little bigger there – which is one reason many people think there is little difference between the two parties.)

Affordable health care is a nice goal. The two parties have opposite solutions. Democrats thought the solution was to write a 2,000+ page bill, write tens of thousands of pages of regulations, hire 10,000 IRS agents. Now even many of the original supporters realize that Obamacare is a train wreck in progress.

Republicans know that the solution to more affordable, higher quality health care is a free market, with many providers competing to find the best solution at the best price. This approach has proven to work and is working today in those places where government regulations allow it.

Some Democrats call for compromise on so-called “gun safety.” What they fail to understand is that the criminals don’t obey the existing 10,000 laws and won’t obey one additional gun law. Republicans understand that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Republicans believe that self-defense is a fundamental right, that a woman has the right to choose whether to carry a handgun to protect herself against a rapist. Would Democrats compromise and allow any woman for her safety and the safety of her children to carry a concealed weapon without a permit?

Democrats and Republicans do compromise on a large majority of bills, but on some issues they cannot and should not compromise.

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Massive new gas tax not needed

The claim by Reps. Carson et al. (letter, March 19) that their votes for an 83% increase in the gas tax were necessary to fix our deteriorating infrastructure is just plain wrong.

Oh, their intentions are good – my town of Sunapee could dearly use more money for roads – but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The bill they voted for does not do what they say it will.

The fact is that HB 617 won’t repair a single bridge nor pave a single mile of road. It does not spend a dime on roads and bridges. It is a taxing bill, not a spending bill. Their rhetoric simply does not match reality.

Their massive tax increase does not mean there will be an increase in spending on roads and bridges. The budget writers can always find a way to divert money elsewhere. The proposed budget actually diverts $28 million away from the department of Transportation (DOT). When their budget spends LESS money on roads and bridges, why should struggling taxpayers put MORE money into the highway fund?

There is an alternative, a way to send more money to towns and cities, and to spend more money on roads and bridges, without a huge tax increase. The first step is the budget writers should stop diverting money away from DOT. Before taxpayers are forced to spend a dime more on new taxes, make sure the old taxes are spent the right way.

The Highway Fund collects more than $270 million per year via the current gas tax and vehicle registration fees. That would be more than enough money to maintain and improve our highway infrastructure if it were all spent on actual highways. The problem is that a full $80 million per year is siphoned off and spent on things that have nothing to do with building or maintaining roads and bridges.

The proposed budget allocates just 67% of the Highway Fund to the DOT. (Current law says that “no less than 73%” should go to DOT, but budget writers simply change the law when they want money to go somewhere else. That is exactly what they could do with the new gas tax despite promises to the contrary.)

Without raising the gas tax a penny, instead by reallocating and prioritizing spending, the legislature could raise more money for roads and bridges. The legislature should increase the DOT’s allocation of existing highway money to 80%, 90%, or a full 100%.

Currently, $30 million goes in block grants to towns and cities. The legislature could increase that amount to $35 million. That would actually be more money to municipalities than the new gas tax would produce.

Those two changes – dedicating Highway Fund expenditures to actual highways, not diverting to other agencies, and increasing the block grants to localities – those two changes would provide more money for roads and bridges than the new gas tax would. There is simply no need for higher taxes.

But what about all those other agencies currently funded with gas tax money? They are a little more than 1% of the whole budget. Let them find money in the rest of the budget. If roads and highways are high priority, that means that something else must be lower priority. Let them cut lower priority spending.

The new tax lets our legislators avoid making the hard choices as to which items are higher/lower priority. If they won’t cut other spending then the net effect of new taxes is to provide more money for low priority items.

(Printed in InterTown Record, April 2, 2013.)

Down in Concord

Q: How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two. One to assure the public that everything possible is being done while the other screws it into a water faucet.

This is the time of year known legislatively as Crossover. House bills cross over to the Senate and Senate bills cross over to the House. The House has a deadline of Thursday, March 14 for some bills; Thursday, March 28 for other bills; and Thursday, April 4 for the big budget bills. With 252 bills left to vote on, the House will be meeting not just on the normal Wednesdays but also on some Thursdays.

The House started with 609 bills. Every single bill has a public hearing, where anyone at all can testify without any advance notice. Then it has one or more committee meetings, all open to the public, a committee vote, and finally a floor vote by the full House. Some bills then go to a second House committee where the process is repeated – another public hearing, a committee vote, then back to the House floor.

The House has passed 106 bills, killed 132, and “retained” 107 bills. Retained means that the committee decided to do further study on the bill later in the Spring, through Summer, and into Fall. They might retain a bill because the idea seems good, but the language of the bill might not be quite right, or perhaps complex enough that they want to spend more time making sure that there aren’t any unintended consequences. I often remark that there is one law that a legislature can never repeal, and that is the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Because the House is so close to its deadlines, the only bills still having public hearings are those that passed the House only to be sent to a second committee, or the big budget bills which have later deadlines.

On Thursday, March 14 at 1:30 there will be a public hearing for HB 617, the monstrous gas tax increase. They have scheduled it in Representatives Hall because they rightly expect a large crowd of people testifying or observing. My guess is that outside the State House will be a large crowd of protesters against the proposed 83% increase of the gasoline tax.

For some families this tax will be an extra $300 they have to cough up every year. By the Democrats own estimates, taxpayers will have to pony up an extra one billion dollars during the next decade. The trucks that deliver almost all of our goods will pay much more in higher diesel taxes, which means that the price of almost every product would go up.

The Democrats claim that the tax is necessary to fix our crumbling roads and bridges but that is almost a bait and switch. More than a million dollars of the new gas tax will go to Fish&Game every year according to the sponsor’s own memo. Other money will go for snowmobile trails; the largest chunk will go toward state police. All of those may be admirable but they have nothing to do with fixing and improving our roads and bridges.

The Highway Fund has more than enough money to construct and maintain our highway infrastructure. The problem is that a large chunk of the Fund is diverted away from the department of Transportation (DOT) to other agencies. The Democrats’ proposed budget spends only 67% on the DOT.

Before we raise the gas tax by 83%, we should dedicate 83% – not just 67% – of the Highway Fund to actual highways. The tax-raising Democrats want taxpayers to pay more money for roads and bridges at the same time their proposed budget diverts $160 million away from roads and bridges. Does that really make sense?

Opponents of this simple idea – that we use the existing money as efficiently as possible before we impose a new burden on struggling taxpayers – raise the absurd objection that this would devastate the state police who dip into the Highway Fund. Does anyone seriously think that the legislature would fail to fund the State Police? This is a standard scare tactic of governments everywhere – they threaten that the most important or most desired programs will be killed if the taxpayers don’t come up with more money.

The total proposed budget is $11 billion. If we took just 1.5% of that budget for state police and related agencies, then we could dedicate 100% of the Highway Fund to the DOT to work on roads and bridges. Does anyone really think that there is not 1.5% of waste or lower priority programs in that massive budget?

Let’s tell our Representatives to stop siphoning gas tax money out of the Highway Fund before telling us to put more money into the fund.

On Monday, March 18 from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. we will have a second opportunity to tell them to spend taxpayers’ money wisely. There will be a state budget hearing in Claremont at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, 111 South Street. I plan to attend and testify that the budget should use realistic – not pie in the sky – revenue estimates, should prioritize spending, and should stop diverting money from the Highway Fund before telling taxpayers to put more money into the fund.

Please join me in opposing the largest tax increase in state history.