Gov. Chris Sununu signed 101 bills into law during the last week in May. You can flaunt your Concord insider status at your next holiday party if you can name two of them by title.
Having 424 citizen legislators is sometimes considered a blessing, for it prevents the elevation of lawmakers into a distinct governing class (no matter what some long-time committee chairperson may think). But that blessing comes with… not quite a curse, but perhaps a blemish.
Legislators labor under no limit to their bill-writing. They may introduce as many ideas as they think merit their colleagues’ consideration. Consequently, there were 1,102 bill requests this year. Fully 83 were withdrawn, leaving 1,019. That’s actually not too bad for 424 legislators. Clearly, many show honorable restraint. Others are only slightly less prolific than Author James Patterson with two extra hands.
To inform the public about this annual mountain of potential restraints on the people’s freedom is a small guard of about 10 journalists who regularly cover NH's State House. That includes freelancers.
There are four assigned desks in the State House press room, one each for the NH Union Leader, The Concord Monitor, the Associated Press and WMUR-TV (which has two political reporters). New Hampshire Public Radio sends two reporters to haunt the hallways there, and a few others can be found filing reports when session is in.
If these reporters divided all the bills evenly, each reporter would have more than 100 bills to cover. That’s a heavy lift, and, of course, political journalism doesn’t work that way.
Reporters cover the bills that are the most controversial, most important, or that might draw the most public interest. That’s only a handful of the bills that are debated in a session.
Many bills that don’t get covered are housekeeping changes of little note. For example, Senate Bill 515 authorized commemorative license plates for towns’ 250th anniversaries (NH, you’re getting old). And Senate Bill 387 raised the liability limit for governmental units that cause bodily injury to someone.
But some make changes that seem tiny yet are consequential to certain industries or groups, or that highlight how ridiculous certain state laws and regulations can be.
In NH, no one can conduct an auction for pay without first getting an auctioneer’s license. Nonprofits pay big money to professional auctioneers just to hold small charity auctions. But what about online auctions, such as those conducted on national websites like biddingforgood.com? Senate Bill 316, which Sununu signed that week, clarified that online auctions don’t require state-licensed auctioneers.
That’s a small bill, but the clarification was important for both auctioneers and charities.
Sununu signed 101 bills during the last week in May and some were covered in the press, such as the rampaging chicken bill that holds owners of trespassing chickens responsible for any injury or damage they cause. Others received little if any attention. That’s a factor of their relative unimportance, but also of the decline of local media organizations.
Not long ago, there was talk of expanding the State House press room because it was too crowded. Now there are rarely enough reporters in it at any given time to field a basketball team or get a decent game of Texas Hold ‘Em going.
Even big issues get less thorough coverage than the public deserves. And then there’s all the stuff that goes on inside the bureaucracy, which reporters also have to cover. It’s not that reporters are neglectful. Like well-written lines in a Star Wars movie, there just aren’t enough of them. Were there more, citizens would be better informed about the goings-on of their state government.
Andrew Cline is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord. For more information visit jbartlett.org.