You don’t have to be a political junkie to recognize their face. The governor is everywhere: kissing babies, giving speeches, so on and so forth. On today’s episode, we break down precisely what power the governor holds and who constrains that power.
We spoke with R. Stuart Wallace, a professor of New Hampshire History at NHTI.
Ben Henry: [00:00:00] Outside the New Hampshire state house, next to the road, there is a low granite wall. Good place to sit, except on snowy days like today. About 90 years ago during the Great Depression people would sit here and ask for money from passers-by. And there was a story that the governor of New Hampshire at the time, John Gilbert Winant, would walk by this wall every day and he would hand out money.
[00:00:25] That might be just a story. But the point is, Winant was that kind of guy. The state was in a crisis, and not just an economic one. It was an identity crisis. The mills that once drove the economy could no longer compete with mills in the South. Farms in New Hampshire had long been out competed by farms in the Midwest.
[00:00:49] State government was not running smoothly: We had 52 different state agencies, which is crazy given how small the state government was. All of these agencies were tangled up with each other and their responsibilities overlapped. It was very confusing. Something had to be done and Winant realized he, the governor, was the only person who could do it.
Daniela Allee: [00:01:15] Hello and welcome to Civics 101: New Hampshire. Today we're talking about the head honcho, the queen bee. We're talking about the powers and the limitations of the governor of New Hampshire. Producer Ben Henry is going to take us on this trip into the executive branch.
Ben Henry: [00:01:35] So John Winant, in the bleakest years of the Depression, asked a think tank, the Brookings Institution, to advise him how to make the government more efficient. First thing they said way too many agencies, consolidate them. Way too many boards and commissions. Get rid of them. Next they said empower the state government to audit town budgets. In other words give the state more financial influence over towns.
[00:02:00] Winant took that advice and reorganized the whole state government. He transformed it from the type of small and weak state government that was common in the 19th century into a more powerful government that could cope with the industries and the bureaucracies and the demands of the 20th century. He also rewrote his own job description. Previous New Hampshire Governors all worked part time. There just wasn't that much for an executive to do in a small government. Winant came in all day every day.
[00:02:32] Eventually he moved on to bigger and better things.
Archival audio: [00:02:36] The newly appointed American ambassador to Britain, Mr. John G. Winant arrived in England...
Ben Henry: [00:02:40] But his legacy lives on in New Hampshire. I want to talk today about the powers that the governor has with somebody who has just buckets of knowledge about New Hampshire history and politics.
Stu Wallace: [00:02:52] Okay I'm R. Stuart Wallace. I've been director of the State Historical Society and director of the Division of Historical Resources and I'm currently a full time faculty in Concord's Community College where I teach history courses particularly in New Hampshire history courses.
Ben Henry: [00:03:10] Almost anyone in New Hampshire can be the governor. As long as you've lived here at least 7 years and you are at least 30 years old, you can run for governor.
Stu Wallace: [00:03:19] Well the governor and his five member council head up the executive branch.
Ben Henry: [00:03:25] If you win that election you have a lot of new powers. But there are two main powers. The first one is that you get to write the first draft of the state budget.
[00:03:37] And we talked about this in our two part episode about the state budget. The governor gets the conversation started then legislators are the ones who hammer out the final details. So overall the governor only has moderate influence over the whole budget process.
[00:03:53] But they can veto the budget if they really don't like it. In most other states, the governor vetoes individual pieces of the budget which is called a line item veto but not in New Hampshire. Here it's all or nothing if you want to veto one thing in the budget you have to scrap the whole thing. So it's inconvenient to do and it looks bad. And the governor does not do this very often.
[00:04:18] Speaking of vetoes it's not just the budget. The governor can veto any piece of new legislation.
Stu Wallace: [00:04:24] Every governor has their own style, however. Some governors basically are somewhat more laid back and let the legislature do their thing. Other governors get heavily involved in the legislative process making sure that the various committees that are deciding on amendments and changes in legislation know what the governor will or will not accept. This way the legislature knows beforehand what's likely to be vetoed or what and what is not.
Ben Henry: [00:04:48] The second main power the governor has is to nominate people for important positions within the government like the commissioners that lead state agencies. There is a catch though the executive branch of the New Hampshire government is not overseen by just the governor. It's also overseen by an executive council. So after the governor nominates somebody they need to get the approval of the five person executive council.
Stu Wallace: [00:05:12] And what the council does is they have divided the state into five regions by population, one council member per region, and their job is to approve appointments and approve contracts. And it's not just appointments to the top spots, its appointments to all of these various bodies that we have out there. I don't know that anybody loses any sleep over the next appointment to taxidermy councils or what have you. But but some of those appointments are ripe plums and as a result the council has clout. Some of those appointments are politically motivated.
Ben Henry: [00:05:45] Like with most of the stuff that the governor does the council can shut down if they want.
Stu Wallace: [00:05:49] That by itself is very unusual. Other governors with one or two exceptions have no counsel and their councils have no powers.
Ben Henry: [00:05:56] New Hampshire's governor is probably the weakest executive in the entire country. It goes way back to the roots of our state government almost as long as we've had a governor we've had an executive council looking over their shoulder. We are also one out of only two states in which the governor has just a two year term rather than four.
Stu Wallace: [00:06:17] And so they're running for re-election the day they were inaugurated.
Ben Henry: [00:06:19] Two years just isn't very much time to get stuff done. Although here's a plot twist. New Hampshire voters almost always elect their governor to a second term. Since the 1930s only two governors lost their first re-election. Possibly two years isn't enough time to get tired of somebody.
[00:06:40] Now although the governor has pretty limited power in a practical sense. If you check out the state constitution there is a lot of stuff they're allowed to do but don't actually do.
[00:06:51] They can declare a state of emergency.
Stu Wallace: [00:06:54] Here in New Hampshire we have we have lucked out. No tsunamis no huge fires or floods tend to be small and local so we haven't had too many problems.
Ben Henry: [00:07:03] They can pardon someone of a crime. They usually need support from the Executive Council to do that. They are also New Hampshire's commander in chief. They could raise an army if we were to ever go to war as a state which realistically won't happen unless we decide to invade Massachusetts, which we might do.
[00:07:23] So those are the powers that are written down in the Constitution and in law about what the governor can do. But there are other kinds of power. There is soft power. The governor is the most prominent public figure in the state. If they want the voters or the legislature or the courts to start thinking about an issue, all they have to do is talk about it.
Stu Wallace: [00:07:45] Governors jump in with both feet. Governors have gotten involved heavily in the opioid crisis or homelessness and homeless shelter issues.
Ben Henry: [00:07:53] The State of the State speech is a prime example of the governor's built-in platform.
Stu Wallace: [00:07:58] I don't know that many people actually watched the State of the State speech.
Archival audio: [00:08:02] New Hampshire has among the highest rates in the country of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence.
Archival audio: [00:08:09] Our mission to reverse the terrible effects of this epidemic it rests on our ability to embrace a spirit of cooperation innovation compassion.
Archival audio: [00:08:17] But at the bottom in accessing treatment.
Stu Wallace: [00:08:22] What department heads try to do and various advocacy groups and lobbyists try to do is to get a good line or two in the governor's speech because then what they've done is say they've hooked the governor if you will as committed to helping with better roads or opioid crisis or better early childhood education or whatever they throw into the speech. That adds some clout to future legislation.
Ben Henry: [00:08:54] One of the little perks to being a governor is you get a mansion. It's known as the Bridges House. It is 21 Mountain Road on the outskirts of Concord. Sort of the White House of New Hampshire. It's not white. It's made of brick. It's also not really a mansion. It's got two bedrooms. Most governors don't actually choose to live there. Hopefully they stay one or two nights there whenever they're feeling fancy.