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Charles Arlinghaus: This year's vague campaign for governor

August 09. 2016 10:49PM

It is a truism among the class of political consultants that a candidate should speak in vagaries. Any substance offered should have the ability to morph into whatever the listener wants to hear. Think of rigid backbones and forceful language replaced with silly putty. Voters would be less cynical if politicians were more forceful and developed specific agendas.

In recent weeks, municipal officials have been pushing politicians to restore the state subsidy of local pension costs. Before 2010, state taxpayers paid 35 percent of the costs of whatever pension obligations a town chose to incur. It meant that whatever frugality a town imposed on itself it would nonetheless pay 35 percent of the obligations any spendthrift town chose to inflict upon itself. If Dover chose to have a ridiculous contract with its police chief — and it did — the rest of us paid for 35 percent of Dover’s silliness.

Between 2010 and 2013, the state subsidy was phased out. Nonetheless, every election cycle, towns press officials to promise a check from the state to offset their costs — a transfer from the frugal to the profligate. Most candidates find themselves saying something like maybe or “we need to do something” or we should look at doing something down the road at some level or another.

The correct answer is no, and we would have some respect for a candidate who says that and explains why. It would cost state taxpayers $200 million per biennium. That’s $200 million that we don’t have and would have to be cut out of other programs. Further, it is bad policy to have some towns subsidize bad decision making in other towns. A town should decide on its workforce based on whether it can afford that workforce. Taxpayers in Berlin ought not be subsidizing taxpayers in Bedford. That principle is neither Democratic nor Republican, it is simply common sense.

The retirement subsidy may be somewhat complex but it’s easily explained in a few sentences that can convey a candidate’s understanding of the issue, policy priorities, and analytical sensibilities. But for some reason direct answers scare candidates.

Too often, a politician is reluctant to tell a group of voters what he really thinks. Or he looks for a way to satisfy both sides of an argument but agreeing a little bit with both and emphasizing something different as a distraction. This behavior, all too common, is a recipe for cynical voters who regard politics as a game practiced by the mealy-mouthed.

Candidates of both parties are guilty of this planned vagueness. I decided to read all of the candidates’ “economic plans,” at least until I got depressed. Candidates are sorely tempted by communications consultants who write meaningless drivel like “bring a new focus to planning” or “promote collaborative engagement” or “be responsive and attentive to business and their needs.”

It’s hard to be critical of candidates for releasing long plans with few specifics, big margins, and soft language. Few of the substantive proposals, and every candidate has a few, are discussed or even acknowledged in broader media coverage. In fact, you might be forgiven for not realizing there is a contested election for governor with no clear favorite. And it’s this year.

Various Democratic candidates have proposed, at least in broad concept, state investment in solar energy, minimum wage increases, a new commuter rail project, and new campaign finance rules. Their Republican opponents suggest a right-to-work law, further business tax cuts, and a one-stop portal for business modeled on Sen. Andy Sanborn’s proposal from last session. One has suggested cutting the interest and dividends tax, another implementing a broad credit against the business enterprise tax. But most of those proposals are quite vague with no numbers.

The credit for boldest proposal goes to Steve Marchand, who has proposed legalizing marijuana and taxing it to pay for increased state spending. Marchand is also the only candidate in either party openly pushing a gas tax increase instead of waiting and “taking a hard look at all options.” I’m not a fan of most of his prescriptions but clearly he’s running to do something, not just get elected.

Much of the blame for the sleepy campaign falls to you and me. If we have no interest in details or in making candidates be specific, why should anyone else?

Charlie Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord.

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