How Much Can N.H.'s Governor Actually Do? Not Much.

Sep 14, 2016

New Hampshire voters had the biggest field of candidates for governor to consider in 20 years--seven people wanted the job. But how much can a New Hampshire governor actually do, anyway? 


Tax cuts. Commuter trains. Sweeping changes to education policy. We've heard plenty of promises from the candidates for New Hampshire governor this year. But most of those loftier promises will be really hard—if not impossible—to pull off.

Because it turns out, if you’re governor of New Hampshire, you’ve been handed a pretty raw deal, at least compared to the other 49 governors. 

“It’s not one of the weakest governorships, it is the weakest governorship  -- no qualification is in order," says Jeff Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire. "We are one of only two states in the nation that has a two year term governor -- the other is Vermont.”

 

For a standalone interactive, click here.

So, that’s the first reason the New Hampshire governorship is weak: it comes with such a short term for office, half the length of almost every other state. But there are other reasons, and here’s No. 2: the Executive Council.

“We are the only state in the nation that has . . . these five politicians, who voters don’t really know about who have extraordinary power on the governor," Bolster says.

The Executive Council consists of five elected officials who have to approve pretty much every thing the governor wants to do: appointing officials, pardons, major state contracts. Think about that, a New Hampshire governor can’t even appoint his or her own cabinet upon taking office.  

“No other governor in the country has anything like this,” Bolster says.

This Executive Council is a vestige of the 18th century, when New Hampshire's constitution was written by leaders concerned about royal power. And the idea that too much power concentrated in too few people corrodes liberty is still in the state’s DNA. 

Which brings us to Reason No. 3 why the New Hampshire governorship might be the weakest in the country: Our huge Legislature—424 people you have to court to get anything through; 424 egos to massage or tick off. 

For an example of what some of this looks like in practice, let's turn to an actual governor. Craig Benson served from 2003 to 2005, making him the only New Hampshire governor in recent history to lose a bid for a second term.

Benson might also be the perfect guy to explain Reason No. 4, the last reason New Hampshire’s governorship is weak: The governor cannot revise the budget — no line-item veto power. When a bill hits the governor's desk, it’s all or nothing.

“You either take the whole package, or you take none of it," as Benson explains. 

Benson came from a business background, where he spent his career hiring and firing, managing budgets. It was experience that helped him get elected, but once he got to Concord, in 2003, things didn’t work that way.

So after a few months and a rocky start, the Republican-led Legislature hands Republican Gov. Benson the budget they’ve drafted. And even though they’re in the same party and share a lot of those values, there are just some things in there that Benson doesn’t like.

So, since he can’t go in and surgically remove those parts — remember, no line-item veto— he does the one thing that is within his power, the thing that really ticks off that big, unwieldy Legislature. He vetoes the whole budget -- baby with the bath water.

“It’s a very big gesture to veto the budget, no doubt about it,” Benson says.

He holds a big public event, where a crowd of lawmakers come to watch him do it. The budget is laid out in front of him on a desk and he smacks it with a big, fat veto stamp.

Back on that day, Benson said the gesture was his way of living up to promises he’d made on the campaign trail. But would Benson have done it if he hadn’t been so hamstrung in his job? If he hadn’t had the Executive Council breathing down his neck, or that huge Legislature, or a term that felt like it was ending just as it was beginning? We’ll never know.

But there's a contrary perspective: Listen to another former governor, John Lynch.

“I think there’s an assumption that the governor’s office in New Hampshire is weak," Lynch says. "But I think that’s incorrect.”

Lynch defeated Benson in 2004 and went on to serve longer than any other New Hampshire governor since colonial days. And he bristles a little at this argument that the governorship is weak.

“I think the governor in New Hampshire has a lot of responsibility, accountability, and authority, to get things done," he says.

In Lynch’s time in office, the state was bombarded with a series of natural disasters. Also, the Great Recession hit. And this called on him to do what a governor can do best: deploy resources, manage the situation, and most importantly, just show up.

“I think it gave people a sense of comfort, that somebody was in charge," Lynch says. "Somebody knew what was going on."

And all of us, even the Founding Fathers, could use some of that.