Charles M. Arlinghaus: Less weed, more road repair, please
January 21. 2014 9:14PM
The most sensational stories make the news. But the most important work of the Legislature is too boring for anyone to care much. The sensational stories will have little or no impact on New Hampshire. The boring stories have a long-lasting, but not sensational, impact. That fundamental conflict is the long-term struggle good public policy faces, and it will be on display in Concord 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, and 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.
Legalization 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 as a trustee managing what government has decided 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 percent cut at the end of day (on an apples to apples basis).
The need to adjust state spending grew more dire each year they didn't do anything. But not doing anything isn't news. Finally doing something grabs headlines because the problem has become so huge.
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. It's 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 in the number of miles under disrepair. I'm getting bored just writing the words.
In the end, we like 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 falls into a state in which 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 politicians should be able to discuss them in a way that gives us at least some confidence they're paying attention.
In addition, the 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.
Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.