Growth forces rustic New Hampshire to update its government

New Hampshire voters like their government simple, inexpensive, and as responsive to the electorate as possible. That's why the governor and the state's 424 legislators have to face elections every two years and why, since 1877, the state constitution has provided for biennial, rather than yearly, sessions of the legislature.

But in last November's general election New Hampshire voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring annual legislative sessions. The shift is one of several indications that the Granite State, which clings to its cherished rural traditions, is having to adjust to the impressive industrial and urban growth it has experienced in recent years.

While the population of the six-state New England region grew 5.4 percent from 1970 to 1982, New Hampshire's population shot up 28.1 percent. During that time, 153,000 people migrated into New Hampshire; in the same period 143,000 moved to Massachusetts, which is much more urban and industrialized.

The new arrivals are credited with pushing New Hampshire toward change. But two recent moves aimed at modernizing state government -- a referendum to increase the governor's term to four years and a legislative drive to establish a cabinet-style executive branch -- have not fared as well as the proposal for annual legislative sessions.

The four-year-term proposition fell just short of the two-thirds vote it needed. Although some new departments apparently will be approved this year, legislative insiders say the most significant features of executive-branch consolidation will have to wait at least until next year.

Republican Gov. John H. Sununu and the leaders of the GOP majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate are seeking to corral more than 150 state agencies into about a dozen cabinet departments. Another aim, which is out of immediate reach, is to give the governor -- Mr. Sununu or a successor -- the power to appoint the heads of these departments and to make at least some of the appointments concurrent with the chief executive's term.

Ten other states -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont -- officially have biennal sessions. Some other states limit activities in the second year of a biennium.

In actual practice, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Vermont have annual sessions. Most others that are supposed to convene only once every two years have devised ways to get around the limitation.

New Hampshire did not have a special session in 1984, but that was the first time in a decade the legislature did not have a session during its ``off year.'' The culprit in these lapses of legislative temperance has usually been the budget, particularly during rough economic times.

All but four of the 50 states now have four-year gubernatorial terms. Three of the four are in New England -- New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Arkansas is the fourth.

Deborah Gona, coordinator of survey services for the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., points out that legislative activities go on virtually year-round, whether states have annual or biennial sessions. Besides lengthened regular sessions and special sessions, there are ``interim'' activities such as committee hearings, investigations, and studies. Ms. Gona says there is ``concern over the cost of stretching out regular sessions and going into special sessions.''

She says limits on the length of sessions -- like the 45 days provided in New Hampshire's law -- are not very effective. Some states count calendar days, some legislative days. Sessions measured in legislative days can be strung out over many more days than would appear.

Meanwhile, foes of governmental reorganization in New Hampshire, including former arch-conservative Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr., are determined to hold their ground in the state's ``Live Free or Die'' tradition.

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