Distant Dome: Citizen Legislature Is a Two-Edged Sword

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

As everyone knows, the New Hampshire House is the third largest legislative body in the English speaking world, only behind the US House and the United Kingdom’s House of Commons.

Serving in the New Hampshire House is largely a volunteer position, all but one member are paid a miserly $100 a year, while the Speaker receives slightly more.

The House is not amateur hour however, as it holds many folks whose real work is politics and campaigns, but also many who have had long careers that depended on being politically astute to achieve their success.

The old adage is the House is filled with people with vast experience who help other lawmakers craft better legislation.

However, there have been people in the House who continued working in the insurance or banking industry, or continued to run small businesses or belong to unions, etc.

There is a very fine line in a citizen legislature between helpful knowledge and self interest.

Although no one likes to draw attention to it, the line is crossed frequently and last week was potentially another example of what can occur.

The House and Senate found religion on ethics in the late 1980s and early 1990 establishing the current Legislative Ethics Committee.

While the initial concoction was a good first step, it has since undergone more refinement with greater transparency. The early version was much more secretive than today’s version which opens the process to public scrutiny once a complaint is determined to be worthy of review.

At about the time the legislature was working to establish its ethics committee, one of the more infamous cases was occurring at the top of the House hierarchy when Majority Leader Vincent Palumbo of Kingston resigned under pressure after he was found to be kiting checks to maintain his lifestyle.

He would later find himself in prison for failing to pay federal taxes on his earnings and a few other legal issues evolved over the years.

 It was not evident that Palumbo was introducing legislation that personally benefited him or settled a score, but that has happened over the years.

A Dover representative was censured by the House in the 1990s when he repeatedly introduced legislation to impeach the probate judge who ruled against him.

The representative spent freely from his mother’s estate when he was not the estate’s executor draining most of the money leaving other family members little by the time the judge, Gary Cassavechia ruled against him.

The volunteer aspect of serving in the House for many years caught up with one House Speaker about the same time.

The Ethics Committee recommended Gene Chandler of Bartlett be removed from the House for failing to report the receipts from his annual corn roast fundraisers. He used the money to pay his personal expenses and claimed he did not believe he had to report the funds he raised from those attending including lobbyists.

The House voted in 2005 not to expel him but to reprimand him instead as he said he would not run again for Speaker.

The issue of lobbyists giving money to lawmakers seldom receives much attention, but fundraisers are held frequently, especially for state senators and lobbyists are invited and expected to contribute.

It is standard procedure but tends to muddy the waters of the appearance of impropriety lawmakers would like to project.

Another kind of problem that will be talked about this month when a hearing is held by the Executive Council on Gov. Chris Sununu’s nomination of his former aide D.J. Bettencourt to be Insurance Commissioner.

Bettencourt was an up and coming Republican House member from Salem serving as Majority Leader when he resigned after Rep. Brandon Giuda, a Republican attorney from Chichester, said Bettencourt had failed to show up for work or do what he was required.

Giuda had given Bettencourt a position in his law office to fulfill requirements at the University of NH Law School where Bettencourt was seeking a law degree.

The law school did not give him a diploma and Bettencourt’s political career was sidetracked for a number of years until Sununu gave him a job in his administration in 2017.

More recently former House Majority Leader Douglas Ley, a Democrat from Jaffrey was also the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

He was involved in several bills on the state’s retirement system, of which public school teachers are members.

The Ethics Committee found that he should not have taken such an active role in the legislation including voting for the changes that would have benefitted him as well as others in his profession.

And the current Majority Leader, Jason Osborne, a Republican from Auburn, is a strong advocate for the Education Freedom Account program, while his wife’s business was one of the first vendors approved for the program.

There is a provision that allows members to declare a conflict of interest and then vote on the issue.

There are many people in the legislature who once worked for the state and are beneficiaries of the state retirement system. Should they be voting or working on legislation affecting their retirement benefits? 

But likewise should small business owners be changing state law to allow them to expand the timeline for carrying a business loss forward for 10 years to reduce their business taxes, or voting to lower the rate of business taxes?

Municipal officials also constitute a good share of House members, and should they be voting on the state’s 10-year highway improvement plan if it contains additional money for their communities or for school building aid when it is in such short supply?

Should the bankers and former bankers be voting on bills affecting their industry or insurance agents or owners affecting their industry?

Should the restaurant and hotel owners be voting on a bill that freezes the tipped minimum wage at current levels even if the federal minimum is raised, which would raise the state’s?

A citizen legislature sounds simple, but it really is not.

How well the personal interests are policed depends on who is speaker and who is senate president.

And much of what happens is handled behind closed doors and the public does not see the problems or the solutions.

But last week reminds us, there is potential for significant influence that may not be driven by the public good as much as the personal good. 

Having someone from the industry involved in a review of potential changes through legislation is a two-edged sword.

Ninety-five percent of the time, the citizen legislature functions as it should, but it is that five percent that needs scrutiny and a great deal more transparency than exists today.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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