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September 27. 2012 10:00PM

Another View -- David M. Carney: Making NH's governor more powerful would be a bad 'reform'

Charlie Arlinghaus’ latest reform idea is misplaced and would remove an important trait that protects New Hampshire citizens from even more politicization of state government.

We have rightly never entrusted too much power in the hands of one person or one public entity. It goes all the way back to that royal governor thing.

The fact that New Hampshire’s governors cannot appoint their own cronies to the helm of every state agency upon their inauguration is a good thing. The beloved and ambiguous Executive Council, a large and citizen-based Legislature, and the town-meeting style of governance give more control to citizens and fewer political spoils to the elected class. Arlinghaus’ idea — that governors should get to bring in their own management teams by having the power to appoint all department heads — would consolidate power in the state’s chief executive and establish an executive branch based more on cronyism than competence.

There is no reason to mess with a system that provides for slower, smoother and, at times, bipartisan management of the basic functions of state government. Some claim that our state government is semi-autonomous from the governor. That is hogwash. The agencies can do little without approval of the Legislature and, most importantly, the governor and Executive Council. State employees cannot even travel out of state without approval.

Governors can lead and have led this state. You need only look past the last eight years of the spineless, directionless, black hole stewardship to see examples: Walter R. Peterson Jr., Meldrim Thomson Jr., John H. Sununu, Judd Gregg, Steve Merrill, Jeanne Shaheen and Craig Benson. Love ’em or hate ’em, they led the state in the direction they were elected to lead, no matter who the commissioner of safety or health and human services was.

The current staggered approach to appointing department heads allows for a smoother transition and keeps radical swings in direction from occurring quickly without the benefit of experience and forethought. Does the commissioner of transportation really need to be a political appointee selected and put in place during the busy first months of a new governor’s term?

No person qualified to serve as a commissioner would give up a good job or move from out of state to take a state position when the next election, always less than two years away, could mean an end to his employment, no matter how good a job he has done. It is precisely the fixed terms of commissioners that make them attractive. Quality applicants know they will have a determined time frame in which to leave their mark on state government.

Being on the governor’s “team” can be helpful and does lead to better coordination. The Arlinghaus plan would stifle internal debate and empower the governor through his staff to run roughshod over the agencies.

What we would throw away in the name of political efficiency is effective governance.

Competent department heads always know that if they run their agency effectively and efficiently they have a shot at being reappointed regardless of the governor. It’s not a sure thing, but it’s hard to replace a competent department head who is respected by the Legislature and Executive Council. Political appointees tend to be, well, political, and we don’t do as well when partisans run state departments. Look at the recent track record.

Narrow elections or landslide elections, the result is the same. A new governor is elected. The current system ensures that there is time to evaluate the agency’s needs and to get a wide array of feedback before appointing replacements. Slowing down the partisan train keeps the power of the governor in check and ensures cooperation and that independent points of view are carefully considered when these key appointments are made.

Any governor worth his salt can convince a rogue commissioner to see the light and move on. Having department heads from the other party is not a bad thing. In some cases, it helps the executive move real reform through the Legislature that otherwise may not have been possible.

Having a “weak” chief executive is a good thing for voters. It keeps the powers spread among more folks, keeps the essential functions working more smoothly, is cheaper and gives the voters through the Executive Council a seat at the decision-making table.

What’s next, a four-year term for our governors?

David M. Carney is the CEO of Norway Hill Associates in Hancock. He worked for Gov. John H. Sununu for six years, many of them as deputy chief of staff.


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