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Strange, But True, Budgeting in NH

by John Stephenson / /

Flipping a coin, the method by which NFL referees determine the direction of the opening kickoff in the Superbowl, appears to be the new method by which New Hampshire State Legislators select the framework for enacting the budget. I wish I were making this up, but it is true.

Yesterday, the Manchester Union Leader reported that the New Hampshire House and Senate ("General Court") are about to enter a conference committee to address a budget shortfall. The House relies, for the most part, on several tax hikes, including a death tax, an insurance premium tax, an expanded tobacco tax, and a local room and meals tax, to close the state's $300 million budget deficit. But the Senate relies mostly on gambling and borrowing to fill the budget gap. The House and the Senate could not agree on which bill would serve as the base bill. As I understand it, the reason why the base bill matters is because the chamber where the base bill originates controls the conference comittee. Unable to agree on a bill (and, it follows, who would chair the conference comittee), the NH legislators turned to a coin to settle the dispute. Here are the details, per the Union Leader:

"A written agreement between House and Senate leaders states they tossed a coin to see whose bill would carry budget measures meant to solve the state's $300 million deficit. The agreement will allow two budget bills to go into the committee of conference process. The talks are meant to produce compromise and bring the state closer to a balanced budget by June 2011. The House won the coin toss, so House Bill 1128 will be the main bill. Senate Bill 450 is a back-up."

While the coin toss may have settled this dispute, it has cast doubt on the budget and, in my opinion, the General Court's ability to function. The reason the General Court exists is to vote on legislation, debate bills, and negotiate compromises. By resorting to a simple coin toss, the General Court tells the people of New Hampshire that it does not have the courage to vote on a proposal as fundamental as a budget; it must resort to chance to settle internal disputes and decide whose bill shall win. In short, it says to the people of New Hampshire that the General Court cannot do its job. Resorting to a game of chance makes a mockery of the General Court, one of the oldest and largest legislative bodies in the world. Before we know it, we will probably see debates resolved by rock-paper-scissors, budget cuts made by Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, and tax policy decided by throwing darts at a board. This is not what we want from our legislators.