The Citizen Legislature

New Hampshire's legislature is not run by professional politicians, it's run by regular people who volunteer their time to make laws. This week, we investigate the advantages of a citizen legislature, as well as the disadvantages. 


 NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.

Jacqui Helbert [00:00:02] There's a joke, you can't throw a rock in the Granite State without hitting someone who's been a legislator. I can't count how many times I've heard some version of...

 Archival [00:00:13] 400 representatives 24 senators the New Hampshire General Court is the third largest legislature in the English speaking world the third largest legislature in the English speaking world third largest English speaking legislature in the world.

 [00:00:29] Fourth fourth what. What happened. We've been third for so now we're fourth.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:00:37] But we do have the largest state legislative body 400 members in the House 24 in the Senate. The.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:00:50] We're really proud. So what Massachusetts ours is bigger than yours. You know.

 Ben Henry [00:01:02] Hello and welcome to Civics 101: New Hampshire. Here in New Hampshire we are the most represented people in the United States with about one state legislator for every 3000 people.

 [00:01:14] Today Jacqui Helbert takes a look inside our huge citizen legislature. How did we end up with so many legislators. What's it like to be one of them. And why is our legislature so full of contradictions.

 Archival [00:01:26] Welcome to the New Hampshire House.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:01:28] Session days are grueling.

 Archival [00:01:32] The House will be attentive while we call a roll of the House using the roll call system if you could just give me your attention real quick before you leave no member will suspend. Cell phones. I heard three go off in the first 10 minutes of session.

  [00:01:47] Please remember to silence your cell phones.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:01:53] After a long day of doing lawmaker things you probably don't picture your state representative going to work as a bartender but some of them do just that lawmaking is their side hustle.

 [00:02:08] We have a citizen legislature.

 Anna Brown [00:02:10] Which basically means their volunteers.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:02:13] Our senators and representatives don't work 9:00 to 5:00. They're supposed to be part time. They definitely don't make enough money to quit their day jobs.

 Anna Brown [00:02:23] Our legislators are not really paid. They get paid two hundred dollars for a two year session and mileage.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:02:31] They go back home at night and live in their communities with people who are directly affected by the laws they pass or don't pass.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:02:39] You'll find them everywhere. They're at like the market basket. They're hanging out at the Puritan Backroom. They're all over the place.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:02:50] A citizen legislator is made up of the people for the people. New Hampshire lawmakers come from many different walks of life.

 [00:02:59] They've been hand surgeons inventors teachers on the flip side a professional legislature is made up of full time lawmakers who can devote all their time to public service.

 Anna Brown [00:03:15] There are just four legislators that are full time well-paid and have a large staff. That's California Michigan New York Pennsylvania.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:03:25] That's cat loving political geek Anna Brown.

 Anna Brown [00:03:28] And I'm Director of Research and Analysis for citizens count.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:03:32] They're a nonprofit group that helps Granite Staters learn about issues candidates and elected officials. Really cool stuff. Most state legislatures are a hybrid.

 Anna Brown [00:03:46] Most states fall in the middle. It might be a full time legislature but they are paid as much. Or it might be part time but they get pretty good compensation that they put in.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:03:56] I think it's like it literally says in the New Hampshire Constitution thou shalt get two hundred dollars for your two years of public service.

  [00:04:03] I am Jackie Benson and I am the content editor of citizens count.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:04:07] This geek doesn't have cats but she wrote her thesis on paranormal investigators.

 [00:04:17] What kind of people can afford to be citizen legislators.

 Anna Brown [00:04:20] So people who can do this. Let's see. You own your own business. You can set your own schedule. You are somehow independently wealthy. You're retired. Maybe you're a lot of retirees. Maybe you are a stay at home mom whose kids are older now so you feel like you have more time that you can commit. We also have some students in the legislature some college students who are able to schedule their classes around seven days.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:04:56] The design of our legislature was set out in the state constitution only back in 1776.

 Virginia Drew [00:05:05] We put a few things in our Constitution that maybe other states would not have done. We do have the right to revolt because this is the live free or die state.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:05:15] That's Virginia Drew. If New Hampshire had a fan club Virginia would be president.

 Virginia Drew [00:05:21] They were the best state in the country. All those other poor states.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:05:27] She's the director of the visitors center.

 Virginia Drew [00:05:30] Into our Constitution. That's where we put that legislative salary in the beginning. Our legislators only met once every other year. A typical session would be about a month. It would be June into July.

 [00:05:45] It was perfect. Farmers got their farms all set. And while things are growing they've come down to their legislation.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:05:53] In 1889 the pay was set at two hundred dollars per term.

 Virginia Drew [00:05:57] Two hundred dollars for a few months every other year was a pretty good salary back in the eighteen hundreds.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:06:04] The Internet told me that would be five and a half grand. The Internet also told me that with that a lawmaker could buy a horse three milking cows and 16 pigs nowadays not so much.

 Virginia Drew [00:06:21] Two hundred dollars a year. And that's before taxes. And so once they pay their federal tax they're Medicare Social Security. Maybe they have 186 dollars. That's for two years. And then they will buy business cards. They buy their nametags the cool license plates you see once they pay to register their vehicle. They can spend an extra nine dollars and get a fancy set for the car.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:06:51] Whoa now slow down. big spender the merits of our citizen legislature have been debated and debated including on NHPR talk show the exchange. Here is a classic episode from way back in 2004.

 Archival [00:07:06] Go ahead Deborah welcome to the exchange. I think that having a citizen quote citizen legislature the volunteers that we do have means that the legislators are perhaps more interested in actually serving the people than perhaps serving themselves. They don't get paid. They must be doing this job because it matters to them a very deep level to participate in the legislative process.

 Virginia Drew [00:07:35] I love that we don't have professional politicians that we have citizens who come from all these different walks of life. We have people who do hunt and we have so when they're talking about a hunting bill or a massage therapy bill there's massage therapists in our legislature. We had bills about electricians. We've had bills about plumbers you could name a profession someone in the New Hampshire legislature is either working it now or has worked it. That means while they're not professional politicians they're experts in certain fields.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:08:11] Virginia thinks this is how the founders of New Hampshire intended it to be.

 Virginia Drew [00:08:18] I think government was made that it was supposed to be real people making these laws. It wasn't supposed to be lawyers and politicians. It was the people.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:08:27] So many people our legislature ballooned from 89 people in the beginning to 443.Vermont only has 180. We became a laughingstock. They finally put a cap on it and limited it to 400 representatives.

 [00:08:47] I walked around the state house trying to find one of the real life lawmakers.

 Archival [00:08:52] I make I'm sorry. Are you a lawmaker. Yes. Cool. I'm with New Hampshire Public Radio. What's your name.

 Jerry Knirk [00:09:01] My name is Jerry Knirk and I'm a second term Representative from Freedom New Hampshire. I do not have a day job now but what I did used to do is I would say orthopedic spine surgeon and this is now my new job.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:09:15] He's on the health human services elderly Affairs Committee.

 Jerry Knirk [00:09:18] There are I think some big advantages to a citizen legislator and that is that just about everybody here actually either has done or is doing some kind of a job so they come in it with their expertise. You look at the expertise in the committees it's astounding.

 [00:09:33] They were not professional politicians who rely on other people to tell us about stuff.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:09:38] With so many spots up for grabs it can be cheap to run for office here. Some candidates don't spend a penny other than a two dollar filing fee. In 2018 33 races went uncontested so whoever signed up automatically won the seat that low bar can make it easier for quote nontraditional candidates to get their foot in the door I am fed up with ya.

 Archival [00:10:06] Let them eat cake attitude in relation to the nation's most serious problems the economy.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:10:13] Arnie Arnesen ran for state rep back in the 80s. She thought she was a longshot.

 Arnie Arnesen [00:10:18] I mean who I am I am poor. I have two little kids. I'm a backbencher. I couldn't have been elected dogcatcher.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:10:24] Not only did she win but she served four terms.

 Arnie Arnesen [00:10:28] But in an incredibly expensive competitive race where the party goes out and reaches out and finds you it would never happen. But as a result of the four hundred you see a lot of young people you see a lot of old people in a way it truly is a celebration of who we are.

 [00:10:44] You know the fact that you pay someone doesn't mean you get the best people in New Hampshire I walked in the see.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:11:01] Praise has been heaped on the Granite State for being quote ruled by women.

 Virginia Drew [00:11:08] New Hampshire had the distinction of being the first legislature to have more women than men in the legislative boss body. It's a wonderful wonderful thing and I tell people we elect more Republicans more Democrats more men and more women than any other state because we elect the most.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:11:34] And if all that isn't awesome enough there is an added bonus. Bragging rights state lawmaker looks so good on a resumé or college application and it's fun to throw around that family reunions. All right.

 [00:11:53] So far everyone we've heard from has been bright eyed and bushy tailed about our citizen legislature. But it's full of contradictions.

 Archival [00:12:03] What the members elect please take their seats. Ladies and gentlemen. I don't read lips get it to come down use a microphone if you want me to hear you. Ladies and gentlemen I have all day. The member will be seated or removed from the chamber. The House will be in order. We are still in session.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:12:29] Ironically with such a huge legislature we're still struggling to make it truly representative first of all the state constitution wasn't written to represent everybody. It was created by white land holding mills for white land holding Mills who wanted to keep their power. Although New Hampshire pats itself on the back for being ruled by women the first woman wasn't actually voted in until a hundred and forty five years after the state was founded and in the ME TOO era it's still not easy being a woman in the legislature. This report came out a few months ago.

 Archival [00:13:14] In the complaint.

 [00:13:15] The staffer said a representative referred to her as the old bat and the granny in the corner. A female lawmaker felt sexually harassed when during a House session a male lawmaker walked by her while she was seated and stopped Feaster and wiggled his pelvis.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:13:34] Interesting the race race issue. We have 6 percent or so of our legislators are not white which actually is exactly how many people in New Hampshire are not white. So we're doing great.

 Anna Brown [00:13:49] It's also then still really not racially diverse so it's hard for you know I think you'd be hard to form for example a black caucus in New Hampshire because you know there'd be like four people in New Hampshire the added average age of a legislator is in the mid 60s whereas the average age of the total adult population in New Hampshire is the late 40s.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:14:17] For a part time largely volunteer job it's a huge commitment. Every year roughly a thousand bills are submitted but unlike other states the New Hampshire representatives don't have their own dedicated staff to help with the workload. They have to work on their own time from their home or the road.

 Jerry Knirk [00:14:43] That part can be a bit of a nuisance. I try to use that time to actually listen to an HP PR rather religiously and then also you know return phone calls to people or whatever using my Bluetooth of course and hands free so I'm following the law.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:15:01] As we said these are folks who aren't getting paid for this and all.

 Anna Brown [00:15:04] A lot of them like they do have another job that they've got to work or kids to take care or they get sick or a loved one gets really sick and if and committee hearings in particular happen mostly in the first two months of the session that's when most of the bills. So if something happens in those first two months and you're out even just one week you could miss dozens of hearings this area daily.

 Archival [00:15:28] Representative King it's always nice to have you. Thanks for coming in. Nice to be here. Last year I was in the Senate I kept very close records and it cost me ten thousand dollars in my own money to be a state senator. I had a big district. I wore out a vehicle every two years and I lost money today. So it's an it costs money to be in the legislature but we pay that price to do that and I don't think we should have to change that.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:15:51] Not every lawmaker can afford to shell out 10 grand a year. That financial hardship and time commitment is too much for some representatives.

 Anna Brown [00:16:02] About one third of them. They do it for two years and then they're like oh my gosh this is this is a full on job and I have a life I can't do this.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:16:12] So it's not as accessible as it could be.

 Virginia Drew [00:16:15] There also there have been legislation in the past to increase the salary change the constitution. They've looked at ways around that by putting in that there would be an expense account for legislators. Any bill that costs the people money must begin in the House of Representatives and that has not passed the House.

 [00:16:38] I don't know that it would. We're a little stubborn on some things as a state.

 Jacquelyn Benson [00:16:46] I think that it's the frugal Yankee New Hampshire way to some extent and that they don't. And I think the other arguments that you'll see on these bills are hey if we start actually like paying ourselves then you know all of these would be professional politicians are gonna swoop in and want the jobs and they they want to keep it so that it's just you know your ordinary folks your ordinary neighbors so having you know non-professional politicians is that cause a lot more scandal.

 Anna Brown [00:17:21] OK I'll put it this way. There's four hundred and twenty four legislators. Right. So even if like one percent of those people is a bad egg that's four people. That's four people every two years.

 [00:17:37] So it definitely opens the door to some to some unsavory situations. If you look back there are definitely a lot of examples of legislators while relatively a lot of legislators getting arrested for everything from illegal hunting because they ran over some ducks.

 Archival [00:17:58] All right well the case involving your state rep from Nashua who ran over some ducks just before Christmas has led to some court fines.

 Anna Brown [00:18:04] Oh my gosh there is this little ring of legislators that were involved in buying marijuana. This was before it was decriminalized. So it was it was very controversial.

 Archival [00:18:13] Report says no charges will be filed against any of the refs because evidence was insufficient to sustain any kind of prosecution.

 Jacqui Helbert [00:18:28] No government is perfect but New Hampshire is special.

Virginia Drew [00:18:31] I will confess. Born and raised New Hampshire I'm a little prejudiced but I think the way we do it is really the true spirit of how legislation's supposed to be. And while maybe it's not perfect it's not always pretty. It's the people doing the people's work and I like that and I'm proud of that.


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